Responding to the Sentiment:
"We Have to do Something!"

By Cynthia Peters
ZNet Commentaries
April 21, 1999

There was a lengthy debate at my dinner table the other night about the situation in Yugoslavia. Most of my relatives defended the NATO bombings as the only moral action to take in the face of crimes being committed against ethnic Albanians. I argued the opposite: that there were very few historical examples of the United States intervening anywhere for moral reasons, and that in fact most U.S. interventions resulted in extreme injustice, increased killing, and less democracy. I made the case that NATO bombings were having the net effect of causing more death and displacement for the Kosovars, increased unity among Serbs for their brutal leader, and less and less possibility that grassroots opposition to Milosevic could play any sort of meaningful role in the resolution of the conflicts.

Not only is this true in hindsight, but it was easily predictable from the beginning.

People seemed to reluctantly agree that our bombings have made the situation worse for everyone involved. They even agreed that it was predictable it would turn out this way.

Still, they continued, what choice did "we" have? The Serbs were murdering ethnic Albanians. We had to do something!

A long back-and-forth ensued during which I made the case that whenever we "do something," we usually make matters much worse. My dinner guests pleaded their case that even if the U.S. government has done horrendous things in the past, it doesn't matter, we had to do something for the Kosovars. Bombing Serbian targets was our only choice. We couldn't just let Milosevic's killings continue.

My sense was that people wanted desperately to believe that we were doing the right thing. That bombing was the only available choice and that our government's actions were guided by moral precepts. One of the people to make this case most vehemently was my sister-in-law.

After dinner, the same sister-in-law approached me and said, "I just wanted you to know that whenever we have these debates about foreign policy, I usually agree with you. But it's hard for me to admit it. If I fully go with what you're saying, then that means our government is acting immorally. That they're not really concerned with right and wrong. That they are acting selfishly and because of militaristic and corporate greed. If that's really true, then what am I supposed to do? I just wouldn't know where to go with that information. It's too hard of a leap for me to make."

Her revelation was important. Not just for personal reasons (I'm not as isolated during these debates as I think I am.?), but because it crystallizes certain key issues for progressives:

Making the leap to understanding the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy is not just an intellectual exercise but an emotional one as well. To truly follow where the information and evidence takes you feels dangerous to many. It is uncomfortable to live with the fact that our government is acting immorally in our name. At a minimum we should acknowledge that this is hard for people. More, we should build ways to support people in their effort to grapple with the evidence. Know and publicize the history of social change struggles. Be able to offer examples of how people have fought - whether they ultimately won or lost - for a more just world. Pass along information about people and organizations currently doing social change work so that others who are coming to political awareness know there are communities of people already out there acting on shared principles. Rejecting mainstream U.S. political agendas does not mean entering into a void or a necessarily fringe existence. Support alternative political, cultural and social organizations because they are doing the critical work of creating alternative institutions, messages, political frameworks, and forums for interacting.

Besides hammering home the evidence that reveals the true motivations and results of U.S. foreign policy, we should have concrete trajectories that we support and examples to back up what we are saying. For example, we should call for (partly adapted from ZNET's talking points by Michael Albert and Stephen Shalom):

an immediate end to the bombing and demand that true diplomatic efforts be made. Madeline Albright never fully explored diplomatic options before the bombing began. Rather, a series of ultimatums were given and when they were predictably rejected, the United States claimed that diplomacy had failed and started the air war. We should not reject out of hand every diplomatic overture (such as the Russian call for talks or Milosevic's offer of a cease-fire). an international peace-keeping force overseen by the UN General Assembly to stand between the combatants, and to preside over a negotiated settlement between different ethnicities in the region. As Noam Chomsky reports, "A very important observation leaked through the NY Times on April 8, in one of the last paragraphs of a story on an inside page by Steven Erlanger, their Belgrade correspondent, who has a record of reliability. Possibly the most important bit of information about what has been happening. He writes that `just before the bombing, when [the Serbian Parliament] rejected NATO troops in Kosovo, it also supported the idea of a United Nations force to monitor a political settlement there.'" an international system, under the auspices of the General Assembly, to adjudicate and make decisions about the use of peace-keeping forces. And an insistence that other atrocities, often perpetrated or abetted or ignored by Washington because they serve U.S. interests, receive the same media visibility and humanitarian attention as the atrocities in Kosovo.

The other day I had the pleasure of hearing Noam Chomsky on Christopher Lydon's "Talk of the Nation." For a whole hour he answered questions and succinctly and intelligently helped make sense of what our government is doing (and could be doing differently) in Yugoslavia. At one point, he made an apt analogy that I wished I had had at my fingertips when arguing with my relatives. He said: Saying that the bombings are justified because we just needed to do something [about the massacre of Albanians] is like saying you chose to mow down a robber, his intended victim, and several bystanders couldn't just stand there and watch a crime being committed. You had to do something!

The only trouble with this analogy is that we are asking people to accept that our government is the one responsible for the murderous overreaction. We have to see our government as having made immoral choices. There is no masking that fact or making it more palatable, but let's understand that grasping that reality is more than an exercise in logic. It's a paradigm shift that requires rallying a great many resources and supports.

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