Bombing for Peace: An Interview with Diana Johnstone

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Diana Johnston is the author, most recently, of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, and she translated Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism from French a year ago.  This interview was conducted during the second week of November, 2007.

RP: During the 1990s, you were among the few Western journalists whose reporting on conflicts in the former Yugoslavia differed from the straight villains-versus-victims narrative of NATO that justified military intervention.  Why did so few even among left-leaning Western opinion-makers welcome alternative coverage of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans?

DJ: That is a question that I cannot easily answer, since the opinion-makers who rejected my coverage of the Balkans failed to explain their reasons to me.  For example, the editor of The Nation, who had requested my contributions, simply failed to respond to my messages from Kosovo offering on-the-spot coverage.  In These Times also rejected my articles from Kosovo without explanation.  Years later, I learned that a temporary junior editor wrote on a web site that I was banned because of a “long personal friendship with Milosevic’s wife, Mira Markovic.”  In reality, I never even met Mira Markovic.

So it seems to me that various pretexts and lies were used to stigmatize my even-handed approach in response to pressures I am in no position to identify.

On an ideological level, it seems that once the public relations campaign of Ruder Finn, on behalf of Croatia and the Bosnian Muslim party of Alija Izetbegovic, succeeded in stigmatizing temporary prisoner camps set up by the Bosnian Serbs as a new “Auschwitz,” the left felt obliged to denounce the “new Nazis.”  The easy success of this campaign still seems very strange to me, and I can’t help wondering about behind-the-scenes pressures in newsrooms and Congressional offices.  Why were there no reports on similar prisoner camps set up by the Bosnian Muslims and Croats at the same time?

I know of several journalists with years of experience of Yugoslavia who, like myself, were taken off the story.  They were replaced by inexperienced young reporters who seized the opportunity to build careers by meeting the editorial demand for stories about “Serbian atrocities.”

Another factor is the tendency of leftists to side automatically with whatever groups claim to be oppressed minorities.  This leads to hostility toward those who are not in rebellion against the State, assumed to be repressive.  Overlooking the divisions that exist within each national population, and the possibility that things are not so simple as portrayed by groups seeking sympathy from Great Powers, all Albanians and Kurds are considered “good victims,” while Serbs and Turks (or Iraqi Arabs, or Iranians) are dismissed as oppressors.  This attitude is easily exploited, or manipulated, by imperialist forces using divisions to break up States they don’t like, notably in the Middle East.

RP: Did the perceived success of Bill Clinton’s military solutions in Bosnia, Croatia, and later in Kosovo encourage the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq?

DJ: Yes, I even think that a major motivation for the 1999 “Kosovo war” was to demonstrate that the United States and NATO could wage a unilateral, unauthorized (by the UN Security Council) and thus illegal aggressive war and get away with it.  Aerial bombardment devastated Serbia’s infrastructure, killed thousands of civilians, without causing a single casualty to the aggressors.  A NATO-sponsored War Crimes Tribunal indicted the victims of the aggression, not the aggressors.

Yugoslavia was an experimental terrain for several things: transforming NATO from a defensive into an offensive alliance, flouting UN authority and international law, undermining the principle of national sovereignty, and using ethnic differences to break up recalcitrant states and redraw international boundaries to favor U.S. clients.  These are lessons to be applied throughout the Middle East.

The Yugoslav wars also illustrated the effectiveness of reducing a problem, or a targeted country, to one demonized figure.  Milosevic, although elected several times, was reviled as a “dictator” and “the new Hitler.”  Subsequently, Saddam Hussein and Ahmadinejad have been given the same treatment.  The people of Serbia, Iraq, or Iran vanish behind the figure of the demon.  Then they can be bombed remorselessly.

The success in Yugoslavia was easy in part because the Serbs were baffled at being attacked by nations (the United States, France, the UK) they considered their historic allies.  Their resistance was purely passive: effective military camouflage and anti-war demonstrations on bridges.  In psychological terms, this U.S. success was in fact a very poor indicator of what would happen when the United States invaded a non-European country such as Iraq.  But policy makers do not seem to have grasped this point.

RP: Surveying the media today, do you think the disastrous outcome of the “well-intentioned” occupation of Iraq has taught war cheerleaders among Western journalists some humility?

DJ: Humility?  That may be too much to ask.  In many cases, the tendency is simply to blame the Bush administration for doing a bad job, rather than for having undertaken a criminal enterprise that was bound to be disastrous.  However, there is evidently more reluctance expressed in the media, as well as among military officers and intelligence analysts, to plunge into yet another war.  The military opposition could be most significant.

RP: Russia’s opposition did not prevent NATO from bombing Serbia and later instigating regime change there.  But Russia seems more assertive now.  Can one hope that President Putin’s historic recent visit to Tehran blunts Washington’s belligerence towards Iran?

DJ: Russia under Yeltsin was essentially absent.  Serbia was abandoned.  Putin is quite another story, and his stance in regard to Iran no doubt helps enforce the misgivings of those in Washington who oppose starting an additional war in the region.  Anyone sensible can see that an attack on Iran could lead to unforeseeable consequences, even though Russia is traditionally a cautious power.  Some U.S. leaders may figure that they can continue to get away with aggression, even on Russia’s doorstep.  The Western media is demonizing Putin as a “dictator” rather than seeking to understand Russia’s national interests.  This sort of arrogance is extremely dangerous.  It is reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it attacked Serbia in 1914 for a “short war” intended to destroy a weaker adversary.

RP: Speaking of critics, France has since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy leaped from the resistance camp to the thin front line of George Bush’s so-called War on Terrorism.  In your assessment, how seriously has the official turnaround in Paris changed the outlook for a just peace in Lebanon, Palestine, and the Persian Gulf?

DJ: There has been an observable tendency among many foreign policy analysts in France to hope for the best, that is, to suggest that the reality of French interests in Lebanon may limit Sarkozy’s alignment with the United States and Israel.  This looks to me like wishful thinking.  Sarkozy’s determination to turn France into the major trans-Atlantic bridge between the United States and a militarized European Union seems to me to be real.

I have no inside knowledge of the thinking within the French foreign policy establishment, which I assume is divided.  Sarkozy’s reversal may be welcomed by those who consider that, since the United States monopolizes influence over Israel, the only way to have any influence in the Middle East is to join the United States.  This is the rationalization that prevails in European chancelleries: we must join the United States in order to “have a seat at the table.”

Sarkozy’s ambition is evidently to make the European Union into a partner of the United States in what I call the “imperial condominium” (usually called the “international community”).  This is the last gasp of Western imperialism, justifying itself by supposed “shared values.”  It is a sharp shift from Chirac’s (somewhat lackadaisical) support for a multipolar world, which was more attuned to the reality of a world where non-European powers are rising.

The French people have not been consulted on this policy shift.  One can guess that most would not agree, just as they did not agree with the EU constitution, which Sarkozy is now planning to force on them anyway, with new packaging.  Opposition to Sarkozy so far dwells on domestic issues.  But the danger of involvement in another war might arouse resistance — or at least one can hope so.

RP: You wrote an expose in June about the new French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, in which you highlighted his habitual fondness for Western elite interests.  Since then, Germany and Austria have dismissed Sarkozy’s and Kouchner’s veiled threats against Iran.  Britain and Italy, too, seem less enthusiastic about confronting Iran than they were under previous leadership.  Can you see a scenario in which EU powers would act together either in support of or against US military intervention in Iran?

DJ: It is hard to see EU powers unanimously acting together on anything.  However, the effort is underway to create an institutional framework that can be used by a dominant majority, and given the present positions of France, the UK, and Germany, it is hard to imagine it being used against the United States.  That being the case, the best one can hope for is continuing disunity among EU powers.

RP:  In 1999, as questionable reports of ethnic cleansing and mass graves in Kosovo justified Clinton’s massive bombing of Serbia, his moral standing was helped by well-publicized endorsement from Elie Weisel, a leading Holocaust awareness campaigner.  Now the Jewish American lobby is targeting Iran energetically and openly.  Are there similar ethnic boosters of military humanism in France today?

DJ: Yes and no.  Nobody is openly calling for France to go to war.  However, there seems to be an important potential cheering section for eventual U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iran.  In France, the “clash of civilizations” is fed mainly by distortions of Ahmadinejad’s statements to suggest that Iran is openly planning a nuclear holocaust against Israel, and cries of alarm over the supposed threat of “islamofascism.”  An example is the recent book by Bernard-Henri Lévy (see my article, “BHL and the Zombie Left,” published on CounterPunch on November 1).  As in the United States, most Jewish citizens are probably against war, but prominent intellectuals and organizations who claim to represent Jewish people seek to rally support for Israel by arousing fear of anti-Semitism.  This actually tends to feed anti-Jewish feelings and risks causing dangerous divisions within French society.

RP: Significant segments of European left and green parties backed Washington’s overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.  Do you detect any reduction in the appetite of Europe’s enlightened class for humanitarian intervention?

DJ: Coming on the heels of the disaster in Iraq, the scandal surrounding the abduction of over a hundred Chadian children by the French organization called the “Arche de Zoé” has strengthened growing skepticism about humanitarian intervention.  Still, if Kouchner has his way, France will intervene somehow in Darfour.  As for Iran, the main argument for intervention is the alleged threat of “another Holocaust” should Iran possess nuclear weapons — the same “weapons of mass destruction” scare used to justify attacking Iraq.  But human rights, especially concerning homosexuals and women, is [another] theme that helps weaken opposition to the idea of bombing Iran.

RP:  Iranian expatriates in France are mobilizing to resist Sarkozy’s and Kouchner’s threats against Iran.  Can they make a difference?  In your opinion, how can that community work with anti-war or against interventionist forces in France for maximum effect?

DJ: I regret to say that I am as yet unaware of these efforts.  What I have observed at meetings called recently to build an anti-war movement is the demand by certain Iranian expatriates in France that the movement must express opposition to the present regime in Iran.  They claim that the anti-war movement needs to gain “credibility” by supporting the political opposition.  It seems to me that, on the contrary, opposition groups want to gain credibility for themselves by being accepted by the anti-war movement.  In any case, their “neither-nor” approach, condemning “both sides” (as if Iran were threatening the United States!) has been opposed most strongly by the Americans Against the War, part of a coalition organizing an anti-war protest in Paris on November 17.  (Below, I append an English translation of a text I wrote in support of the AAW position.)  Perhaps the expatriates you mention are working with other local groups.  (A weakness of French anti-war efforts is the extreme sectarian fragmentation on the left.  The anti-war movement in Britain is much stronger and more united.)

In my view, Iranian exiles should separate their political struggles concerning internal Iranian politics from anti-war activities, to avoid the impression that they are trying to use both pro- and anti-war forces to advance their own political agendas, rather than to save their people from death and devastation.

RP: Thank you very much for your time.

Allow me to make a few observations in support of the position of Americans Against the War; that is, that we should reject all interference in the internal affairs of Iran, meaning that we should not identify with dissident groups, whether pro-Pahlavi or pro-Rajavi/Mujahedeen Khalq or any other tendency.

1  Every military aggression by the United States is supported by certain opposition groups within the attacked country.  Their demands are used by American leaders to justify the violation of international law in the name of “human rights.”  “Regime change” — supposedly in the name of democracy — is now a declared U.S. war aim.

Under these circumstances, it is imperative to separate opposition to war from the issue of “regime change.”  Changing regimes is up to the people who live in the country.  It is none of our business.  We are not qualified to determine what is “democratic” for others.  We are against interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

We Americans have the unfortunate experience of ever so many groups of exiles, from the “China lobby” of the 1950s and 60s to Chalabi and company, not to mention the Cuban exiles, who have helped reinforce the United States in its arrogant claim to be the savior of the world, its rejection of diplomacy and compromise, its preference for measures or coercion, sanctions and war.

We are against war, but also against sanctions that can be merely the first step toward war.

The exception that proves the rule was provided by the Republic of South Africa during the apartheid regime.  That republic was part of the West, and its apartheid regime was the direct product of European colonialism in Africa.  The West therefore had a special responsibility for apartheid and a special duty to help end it.  Sanctions against the RSA were an expression of the anti-racist evolution in the West.  They were purely economic.  They did not constitute a threat of war, as there was never any question of waging war against South Africa.

That was a totally different matter from sanctions against Cuba, accompanied by failed invasion and assassination attempts, aimed at destroying an economic system contrary to American interests; or from sanctions against Iraq, which were an aspect of war measures leading up to the military conquest which has left the country in ruins.

To demand that we, citizens of the West, “support the democratic opposition” in Iran makes no sense.  First of all, we are not capable of judging who is the genuinely “democratic” opposition.  Secondly, we have no means of supporting anyone.  It is our governments that have the means, namely, sanctions and war.  But our struggle is precisely a struggle against the use of those means, whatever the pretext.

2  Our struggle is about the nature, I might say the soul, of our own societies.  War corrupts democracy.  Militarism, endless war, hatred and fear of “the other,” the “conflict of civilizations” is corrupting American democracy, despite the strength of America’s democratic traditions.  Should the blind pro-American policy of Kouchner and Sarkozy pursue its course, this trend could lead France into adventures that would be catastrophic for its internal democracy as well as for the position of the French in the world.

France still has the choice of being a factor of good sense, diplomacy, and peace in the world.  It is urgent to save that option before it is too late.

3  The struggle for peace is not the same thing as the struggle for democracy in the world.  Unfortunately.  A country can very well be a democracy — and the United States is still so considered — and wage aggressive war, just as there are many countries that are not particularly democratic but that do not attack anybody.

It would certainly be a good thing for democracy and peace to go together.  For that, we need to oblige our own democratic countries to make peace with the world.  That would make democracy more attractive.  For if we really care about political systems in other parts of the world, we should start by recognizing that all we can actually do is to set an example — above all by imposing a peace policy on our own governments.  If we are unable to do that, what is the use of this “democracy”?

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