The 1999 NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia: A Precedent for Western Interventionism?

by Sebastian Bruhn

Yugoslav Army General Headquarters building damaged during NATO bombing

Today marks exactly 21 years since NATO, led by General Clark and the US, began a fierce bombardment campaign of Serbia and Montenegro: the last remaining republics of a dissolved Yugoslavia, embroiled in ethnic conflict in the Kosovo War. From the outset, the campaign was unique. It was only NATO’s second major military operation, and it was also the first time it unleashed its military power without any clear endorsement from the UN Security Council, likely due to indications of a Russian veto and further outcries from Greece. The campaign was even presented as a “humanitarian” war, something commentators pointed to as an oxymoron. Granted, its core alleged goals did seem righteous: to end all violence and purported repressive activities—specifically those ordered by Serbia’s leader Milosevic—and to ensure the withdrawal of all military, police and paramilitary forces from Kosovo. There were even post-campaign objectives, such as returning refugees and establishing a political framework agreement based on the precursory peace efforts at Rambouillet.

The argument could therefore be put forward that, at least at face value, NATO instigated the bombing campaign with virtuous goals and that those involved in the campaign believed this too. Indeed, statements suggested that General Clark and his commanders had hoped for a swift victory and that they were responding both to Kosovar Albanian cries of underrepresentation and discrimination from Belgrade, together with reports of clashes between Serbs and Albanians, large-scale civilian displacement, and even executions. One such execution, the infamous Racak Massacre, was actually emphasized as a key justification for the bombing. Nevertheless, when looking at the campaign from NATO’s point of view, it still only seems honest and fair to ask: at what cost, and with what consequences was the bombardment carried out?

Though NATO presented the operation as successful and justified, more or less achieving the stated goals and resulting in a sense of liberation among many Kosovar Albanians, newly emerging facts and enquiries seem to suggest that the campaign and its ramifications may have gone beyond the declared goals. Firstly, the bombardment resulted in substantial civilian casualties and economic losses in all camps, highlighting the seeming paradox of a “humanitarian” war. Linked to this, Serbian commentators stressed their nation’s sovereignty and also pointed to Albanian insurgencies to argue that NATO was mistaken to so adamantly “pick a side” in a complex internal conflict that saw atrocities committed by all forces. Secondly, a number of historians and analysts, with the benefit of hindsight, have pointed to NATO’s subsequent 21st century foreign interventions to suggest that the 1999 campaign actually played a pivotal role in setting a precedent, perhaps even creating a template, for future military campaigns and conflict, namely in the Middle East.

In the years immediately after, the campaign had already triggered debates surrounding why NATO employed the strategies that it did, why the escalation to bombardment ensued so quickly, and whether or not it was legitimate and moral. A question that appeared often, especially between analysts like Brad DeLong and Noam Chomsky, was whether the campaign was indeed a wholeheartedly benevolent humanitarian effort to save innocent lives and liberate peoples or whether it may have functioned also as a US and NATO power play—a tool to assert superpower influence and demonstrate the continued need for NATO in the post-Cold War world. Some historians have pointed to Madeleine Albright’s tough last minute demand at Rambouillet for Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout its territory to support the latter argument.

The Bombing Begins

The course of the bombardment campaign, known as “Operation Allied Force” (or “Noble Anvil” in the US) was well-funded and, at least initially, very strategic. The operation employed over 1,000 aircrafts supported by helicopters, warships, and eventually troops, all with the primary objective of destroying specific Yugoslav military targets and infrastructure. This strategy gradually changed, however, as the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, rather predictably, answered NATO with anti-aircraft retaliations, while simultaneously continuing on-the-ground battles with the ethnically Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army. As a result, despite hitting most initial non-civilian targets in less than a week, NATO’s bombardment persisted and started to follow a much broader and more ambiguous target list. The list expanded beyond military facilities to include what NATO dubbed “second post” strikes and “dual-use” targets, such as government buildings, factories, power plants, bridges and even broadcasters.

Eventually, this list of bombed sites became so extensive that it included much more recognizably civilian locations, such as markets. According to the Serbian tabloid newspaper Vecernje Novosti, even medical and rescue teams had been targeted. International research showed that by the end of the operation, over 80,000 tonnes of bombs had been dropped, including an array of cluster munitions and depleted uranium, a fatal and noxious radioactive by-product of nuclear energy production.

Indeed, the rapid expansion of campaign targets, combined with the utilization of toxic radioactive bombs was undeniably tragic for civilian life and did not discriminate between ethnic groups. As the scientist Ljubisav Rakic stated following the bombing: “the amount of depleted uranium dropped in the Balkan states during the NATO…[campaign]…would be enough to create 170 nuclear bombs, similar to those dropped on Hiroshima…” In the years following, the civilian cost proved to be long-term and enduring for many, with several reports of children in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo being born with defects from radiation exposure—and many still living with ensuing diseases to this day.

But the cost of the bombardment to civil society was an instant reality for locals on the ground. On the 10th of April, NATO planes hit Korisa, reportedly killing mostly Albanian civilians, while on the 6th of May, NATO cluster bombed an open-air market and hospital in Nis, killing at least 15 Serbian civilians. Whether these were carried out entirely and intentionally in cold blood or were rather rash and unconsidered tragedies in the “fog of war” is, of course, furiously debated, but the real price paid in innocent lives is not.

On the 7th of May, NATO bombs even hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens. In this latter case, NATO officials claimed they had meant to hit a Serbian military target, but the People’s Republic of China was still infuriated. Beijing saw significant demonstrations, prompting President Clinton to publicly speak out on the matter.

The Aftermath and Consequences

By the end of the campaign, NATO and the Clinton administration had proclaimed multiple achievements of the operation, such as ending the Kosovo War with the Kumanov Treaty, forcing the withdrawal of Serbo-Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and establishing a UN mission there. However, the recorded number of civilian deaths was piling up concurrently. The estimated number of civilians killed ranged from around 500 to as high as nearly 6,000, together with roughly another 1,000 Serbian military personnel. The Serbian government, Human Rights Watch, and other humanitarian groups released their own varying respective figures, but in the roughly 2.5 months during which the bombing took place, the Serbian government’s numbers suggested just under a staggering 100 civilian deaths a day.

This bleak civilian consequence was tied to other geopolitical and economic outcomes as well. Ethnic relations were precarious at best and concern quickly grew amongst Serbs, most of whom saw Kosovo as a historical and cultural cradle of their state and identity, that the Serbian population in Kosovo would be condemned to live outside of Belgrade’s jurisdiction and protection. This was spurred on specifically by the increasingly outspoken hopes of Kosovar Albanians, who were the clear majority at this point, for self-determination in an independent Kosovo or perhaps even a “Greater Albania”. The region also took massive hits commercially, with the total economic damage to Serbia estimated to be $3.8 billion and the predicted wider economic loss to be as high as $30 billion. Also, at least rhetorically, disagreements and tensions regarding the execution of the intervention had surfaced and deepened between the Western NATO bloc on one side and Russia and, gradually, China on the other. Russia called the bombings “barbaric”, while the US fired back by asserting that ethnic cleansing was the true barbarism and that Russia actually recognized this, whether it admitted it publicly or not.

An example of these disagreements persisting into the 21st century can be seen in the two competing contemporary narratives regarding NATO’s foreign interventions. Western media has often seemed to portray these military interventions as driven by human rights, democracy and security, whereas some Russian and, at times, Chinese media have appeared to paint them as motivated primarily by regime change and control over resources.

On this crucial point of geopolitical consequences, a growing amount of analyses have emerged to the extent that they warrant consideration. Of course, certain experts, like DeLong, support NATO’s reasoning and maintain that the bombardment was a necessary response to a global sense that Serbia needed to be restrained. US Defence Secretary William Cohen openly stood by the decision to commence with the bombing. With references to both the situation in Kosovo and the earlier violence in Bosnia he called it a “fight for justice over genocide” and a clear response to murder and mass killings.

However, others have questioned this reasoning. For instance, William Blum, a historian and critic of Western foreign policy, not only highlighted the bitter human cost of the campaign, but also contended that the operation was in fact primarily carried out due to Serbia and Montenegro posing a “sufficient obstacle to the desires of the American Empire” in the post-Cold War world. This type of perspective indicates that Serbia and Montenegro was an “eyesore” and political hurdle to the West, particularly as a symbol of socialism and non-alignment.

Author Diana Johnstone seems to align with this logic and, arguably, goes even further. In her book Fools’ Crusade she labels Yugoslavia (Serbia & Montenegro) the “guinea pig” that enabled the acceptance of increasingly remote aerial warfare and foreign interventions on humanitarian grounds as a normal and “established feature of the post-Cold War global order.” Viewpoints like this draw a clear link between the 1999 bombing and NATO’s 21st century interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and other parts of the Middle East. Moreover, they essentially suggest that a precedent, perhaps even a premeditated one, for sidelining the UN and normalising unilateral military interventions and civilian casualties was born out of the bombing, in the minds of the public and Western governments alike. Such perspectives are damning condemnations, which have of course triggered fierce pushback. But, realities like the fact that even much of the traditionally anti-war left wing of the US congress was promptly on board with providing bipartisan support for the global “War on Terror” only two years later in 2001 could potentially be highlighted to back up some of these assertions.

The notions of humanitarianism and saving innocent lives may seem well-meaning and can certainly be corroborated by the realities of life under certain regimes. However, conversely, there also appears to be notable analyses pointing to the idea that a pattern of normalised and increasingly frequent globally-unauthorized foreign interventions took off in the immediate years following NATO’s 1999 campaign in Yugoslavia. Regardless of the precise and true motives behind this late 20th century operation and those following, the existence of a real and severe cost for innocent civilians cannot be disputed. It may feel distant, but it has enduring consequences that reverberate through the generations.

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