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Bombing A La Mode

By Edward S. Herman, Z Magazine 12/1998

The U.S. leadership and elite are ready, willing, and often eager to drop bombs on the lesser peoples of the world. They can do this without fear of retaliation because of the huge military advantage of a superpower and the subservience of the "international community." U.S. leaders are also never constrained by any sense of embarrassment or shame at using advanced weaponry against essentially defenseless people.

Joy in Bombing

One factor explaining this readiness to bomb is the elite's long-standing sense of racial and cultural superiority, and self-serving assumption of the right to police, rule, and exterminate. Its classic expression was Secretary of State Richard Olney's 1895 proclamation that "the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition." But from Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and his successors, Olney's arrogance is matched by a stream of racist putdowns of the "niggers" and "gooks" we were killing and pacifying. Furthermore, throughout the post-colonial wars of our age, the increasingly high tech, capital intensive warfare we have employed has been openly designed to reduce our casualties, while increasing the civilian as well as military toll imposed on our enemies. Enemy casualties are given zero weight in the calculus of U.S. military-political planners, a dehumanizing process reflected in the frequency with which war casualty enumerations entirely ignore those of the enemy.

This attitude makes bombing easy, but the key factor in stimulating the bombing activity is no doubt the U.S. imperial role. Military forces with global reach, as demonstrated by bombing, serve the interests of the U.S.-based transnational corporations dominant in the globalization process, by showing what can happen to countries that are slow to open markets or to install friendly regimes in power. Using boycotts and bombs to punish "rogues " who somehow presume to control their own markets and resources has been an integral feature of U.S. and western policy since 1917. Periodic bombing forays also help justify the large military establishment and allow it to reduce old inventories and display and experiment with new weapons.

A further and related factor in the readiness to bomb is that bombing is a political winner at home, with the media always getting on the chauvinistic bandwagon, and the public also regularly rallying around the flag and in support of our boys. George Bush's poll ratings rose as he bombed Iraq in 1991, with the reporters and public enthralled at our new clean war.

With the right-wing and mainstream media helping demonize anybody standing in our way, U.S. presidents are also regularly under pressure to drop bombs as a display of macho "character" and "leadership." Weak presidents are especially prone to bomb in order to quiet their critics and protect and improve their poll ratings. Clinton's 1993 attack on Baghdad in the wake of an alleged Iraqi assassination plan against George Bush was a model case of a bombing response to media/right-wing political pressure. The rapid bombing response to the attacks on the U.S. African embassies in August 1998 was also based heavily on the need to do something forceful to forestall political criticism. Of course, in the official explanations and mainstream media the bombs are allegedly dropped only after "agonizing choices," but this is apologetic propaganda that glosses over the exclusively political considerations involved in the decisions and the miniscule weight given "collateral damage" and international law.

When the evidence assembled after the 1998 bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan showed that the U.S. claims justifying the attack were false and based on incompetently gathered and evaluated data, there was very little if any criticism in the mainstream media. For the media, the U.S. has a right to bomb another country if it thinks it has any kind of case--it doesn't have to be sure of the facts, or rush to compensate the victims of its errors, any more than it is obliged to abide by international law.

Rules of the Bombing Game

The rules of the bombing game are simple: if you are a friend and useful ally, you automatically possess legitimate "security concerns" and can cross borders, kill, and ravage, free of any bombing threat; but if you are an enemy or otherwise obstruct the achievement of our objectives, your crossing of borders and killing, at home or abroad, cannot be tolerated and you are bombable.

There is even an obligatory and droll tendency to exaggerate the crimes and threats of the bombables. Thus, just months before the U.S. attack and proxy invasion of Guatemala in June 1954, the National Security Council described the virtually disarmed victim country as "increasingly [an] instrument of Soviet aggression" in Latin America, as if it rather than the U.S. was about to engage in an armed attack. Similarly, tiny Nicaragua, under U.S. attack in the 1980s, was alleged to be carrying out a "revolution without frontiers," and when it pursued U.S.-sponsored terrorists across the border into Honduras, was declared by the U.S. government (and media) to be carrying out an "invasion." Neither of these bombable countries was allowed the right of self defense. The governments of both were removed by U.S. bombs and other forms of violence, although the Nicaraguan government's final exit was engineered by an election held under conditions of blackmail after years of devastating terrorist attack.

Iraq, of course, became eminently bombable after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It had crossed us, and there were other important reasons to bomb: the right-wing pundits were screaming for blood, Bush was in political trouble, and the military establishment needed a post-Soviet military budget rationale and had large inventories of bombs to run down and weapons it wanted to put on display. With the help of the media, the long appeasement and support of Saddam Hussein was ignored, and the many efforts to allow him to withdraw from Kuwait with dignity were brushed aside. So bombs away.

It is enlightening that Iraq was not bombable before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, despite its doing some pretty awful things, like attacking Iran and using chemical weapons against its indigenous Kurds in 1986. As Saddam Hussein was then a U.S. friend, a recipient of U.S. aid, and performing a desired service--killing Iranians, when Iran was a high-ranking enemy--these matters could be overlooked by us and by the "international community." Never let it be said that principle and the need for policy consistency would stand in the way of pursuit of our short term interests.

Another notable exception to bombability occurred following Suharto's 1975 invasion and occupation of East Timor. This involved ethnic cleansing far beyond anything the Serbs or even Saddam Hussein have ever perpetrated. But as our friend, with an open door and providing an investors paradise, not only was Suharto not bombed, he was supplied the arms to kill, diplomatic protection, and the necessary eye aversion in the U.S. and other western media.

Turkey and Israel

In the midst of the western furor over the Serbs in Kosovo, in October 1998 the Turkish army launched another pacification drive against the Kurds in Eastern Turkey. In 1995 the New York Times acknowledged that the Turkish army had been "using the F-16s and other American weapons to strafe Turkish villages...killing thousands of civilians and leaving millions homeless" (ed., October 17, 1995). Turkey has also repeatedly invaded northern Iraq in extended campaigns of pacification, not only killing alleged Kurdish "terrorists" but with its troops "frequently reported to murder Kurdish villagers at random," engaging in "beatings, looting and destruction of homes and property" of the civilian population (Financial Times, August 8, 1995). Turkey is also notorious for the institutionalized use of torture on prisoners of all kinds.

The Turkish torture, ethnic cleansing and invasions have been an "embarrassment" to its allies (NYT, September 7, 1992), who have urged Turkey to be nicer. Although the Turkish attacks on the Kurds have caused far more death and destruction than Serb repression of ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo, have been going on for years, and have also involved repeated invasions of another country (Iraq), there has never been any call for bombings or even for monitoring of Turkish actions by the U.S. or international community. In accord with the rules of the bombing game, as a friendly power, with an open door and regularly obeying orders, Turkey has "security concerns" that must be acknowledged, and it is not only not bombable, it continues to receive U.S. aid and diplomatic support. In the midst of its further assault on the Kurds, the European Commission has proposed giving Turkey an aid package of $182 million "to help it prepare for European Union membership and strengthen a customs union" (Financial Times, October 23, 1998). The Clinton administration has exerted no pressure whatsoever on Turkey to stop killing Kurds. It goes without saying that the mainstream U.S. media have given the Turkish ethnic cleansing minimal attention and indignation and have failed to note the remarkable double standard.

Israel, of course, is even more closely allied to and protected by the U.S. than Turkey, and is freer still to engage in ethnic cleansing and cross-border invasions and raids, without fear of international sanction. For decades Israel has been pushing Palestinians out of their homes in favor of Jewish settlers, and has maintained a system of discriminatory housing and land ownership that has been compared unfavorably to South African apartheid in the Israeli (but not U.S.) press (see Ha'aretz, February 10, 1991). The homes of Palestinian protestors throwing stones are regularly demolished, but following his murder of 29 Palestinians Baruch Goldstein's home was left intact. Torture has been used on a systematic basis for decades, the New York Times acknowledging in passing (August 14, 1993) that 400-500 Palestinians were being so treated per month. Well over a thousand Palestinians were killed and over 130,000 injured during the Intifada protests against discrimination, in which Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin instructed the Israeli army that they were free to enter Palestinian homes and beat men, women, and children without fear of prosecution. No action against Israel was taken by the international community in response to this brutal repression.

The state of Israel has also repeatedly invaded Lebanon, relentlessly bombing and killing many thousands of civilians and putting hundreds of thousands into flight. It has for many years maintained a terrorist army in South Lebanon to serve its pacification interests there. And Israel has felt free to make periodic punitive raids into Lebanon and to bomb the country at its discretion.

This ethnic cleansing within Israel, persistently violating international law as well as UN Security Council resolutions, and the regular invasions and cross-border attacks against Lebanon, have never led to Israel being threatened with bombing. It has never even been subjected to any reduction in U.S. aid or the flow of supplies of bombs and other weapons to carry out its repression and invasions. Although Israel has had towering military superiority over the Palestinians and the neighbors which it has periodically invaded, Israel's behavior is justified by its allegedly serious "security concerns," whereas its victims have none. Israel is also declared to be a victim of "terrorism" and its massive ethnic cleansing and discrimination, and cross-border attacks, are counter-terrorism and retaliation, by virtue of its status as a U.S. client state (even if a case where the tail wags the dog). These truths are institutionalized in the U.S. mainstream media, so that Israel can obtain subsidies to do things that would make an enemy power extremely bombable.

Bombable Serbia

Yugoslavia's Serbs are the latest in a long line of demonized bombables. Its president Slobodan Milosevic is furiously denounced by editorialists as a world class villain, and cartoonists can portray "the Serbs" as pigs without being reprimanded for racism. The crimes for which the Serbs must be severely chastised, however, are frequently equalled or exceeded by that of U.S. client states, who can remain beneficiaries of western aid even while engaging in genocide in an invaded territory (Indonesia's Suharto regime in East Timor). Mass murder alone is not enough to merit demonization and bombability. Behind the carefully channeled outrage lies the geostrategic interest of the U.S. and its leading Western allies.

While great understanding is displayed for the "security concerns" that drive U.S. clients to violence, instances of violence by the bombables are attributed to a defiant and perverse desire to "test the resolve" of Western leaders. This unlikely motive is played up, while any genuine fears of a country that finds itself singled out for pariah treatment are ignored.

Yugoslavia's post-World War II leader Tito may have been a communist dictator, but his quarrel with Stalin turned him into an ally of the West. Yugoslavia was relatively open and prosperous, and received lavish Western credits. The resulting debt burden was a major factor in splitting the country along economic and ethnic lines in the 1980s. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Yugoslavia lost its strategic interest to the U.S. The newly reunited Germany, along with Austria, could resume its traditional hostility to a unified Yugoslavia, sponsoring Croatian and Albanian nationalism against the Serbs. German clout forced rapid international acceptance of an unnegotiated breakaway of Slovenia and Croatia, turning the Yugoslav army into an "aggressor" on its own territory. For the Serbs, who had seen Nazi German conquerors carve Yugoslavia into separate pieces in 1941, it was deja vu all over again.

Under pressure from media always on the lookout for villains, the U.S. soon got on board this destabilization bandwagon, largely to reassert its leadership role in Europe, and also to forge new ties with its closest Near Eastern allies (Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia) by creating a new area of domination in the Balkans at the expense of what had been a relatively autonomous and less amenable power. Yugoslavia, after all, had been known both for its own special brand of "self-management socialism," in contrast to the Soviet model, and for its international role as co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, with close ties to Third World countries. These were aberrations that U.S. leaders were only too happy to get rid of once and for all.

As ethnic Serbs had been targeted for liquidation in the "Independent State of Croatia" (which included Bosnia) run by the Nazi-backed Croatian Utasha movement during World War II, German support for the breakaway of Croatia under a nationalist leadership openly sympathetic to the Ustasha tradition, posed a real security threat to the large Serb population in Croatia. This could only strengthen nationalist forces in Serbia. In various ways, Western policy encouraged Croatian, Slovenian, and Albanian nationalist movements to seek to exit from the Yugoslav state. By thus endorsing ethnic identity as the basis for territorial sovereignty, the West encouraged all factions in Yugoslavia to seek spatial domination--which entailed pushing out members of rival ethnic groups, often by murdering them to scare the rest. The Serbs participated aggressively in this terrible process, but they were not alone. Leaving aside the question of who started what and who killed and drove out more people in the "ethnic cleansing" in Croatia and Bosnia between 1991 and 1995, what is certain is that the U.S. media focused on Serb crimes and played down those committed by Croats and Muslims. There was no great display of moral indignation in the media and from Western leaders when a quarter of a million Serbs in Krajina were driven out of their homes by Croatian forces in August 1995 (with substantial killing). In fact, those Croatian forces had been (illegally) rearmed with German weapons, trained by U.S. "retired" generals and given the green light by the U.S. ambassador. Moreover, it was just as this was happening that NATO designated the Serbs as their first bombable target on the European continent since the end of the Cold War.

When trouble flared this year in the Serbian province of Kosovo, the most difficult trouble spot in all the troubled Balkans, the West immediately reverted to its stance in Bosnia: the Serbs are to blame and must be bombed. Knowing this, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which seeks to detach Kosovo from Serbia and form a Greater Albania has a simple strategy. Depend on Serbian repression to bring in NATO forces to attack the Serbs and allow the KLA to take over.

This scenario has been obvious and predictable from the start. For several years the KLA assassinated not only policemen and Serbian officials, but also ethnic Albanians who opposed the violent secessionist movement. In the summer of 1998 the Serbian security forces finally took the bait and went into the Kosovo countryside to root out the KLA. As usual in such cases, hapless civilians suffered and the guerrillas simply regrouped. Untold thousands of civilians were driven from villages believed to be sheltering KLA fighters before security forces battered down walls and set family compounds on fire. Between 500 and 1,000 people have been killed in this conflict. Both sides have massacred civilians, with the stronger Serb army very likely responsible for a disproportionate share. But only the Serb side is threatened with any kind of NATO action.

In this way, the U.S. propensity to bomb becomes an instrument that can be wielded even by a relatively small armed rebellion to break up a recognized nation. The KLA may be the first "liberation" movement in history to consider NATO its virtual air force. This opens up new horizons for the uses of NATO.

The Turkish armed forces have generously offered to take time off from destroying Kurdish villages in and beyond Turkey's borders to participate in NATO's humanitarian crusade against the Serbs for having done roughly the same, but on a much smaller scale and only within Serbia.

The selectivity of the West's humanitarian concern is blatant. And in this case, Western policy has actually fanned the flames of conflict. Whereas fair and friendly mediation is called for, the West's bias toward one side, and contradictory signals have made it virtually impossible for the Serbs and Albanians to work out a solution among themselves.

The ethnic Albanians say they want to secede. The West rules that out, as it would set a bad precedent for the Bosnian Serbs who want to secede from Bosnia. Some Serbs suggest partitioning Kosovo between Serbia and the Albanians. The West rules that out, as it would set a bad precedent for Macedonia, where Albanians would then also want to secede. The Serbs offer to negotiate without preconditions, the Albanians refuse to sit down at the table, and the West thereupon threatenss to bomb the Serbs "to force them to the negotiating table."

However provoked, Serbian security forces are almost surely guilty as charged of "using excessive force." In its righteous indignation, NATO has assembled a mighty armada of warplanes, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles which threaten to wipe out Yugoslavia's entire national defense capacity, including command and control centers. This is because NATO abhors the use of "excessive force."

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