What a month to debate military intervention in another country’s affairs! The 24th of March marks the twelfth anniversary of NATO bombing Yugoslavia. The supposed success of that mission buoyed the interventionists, inspired Tony Blair and set the scene for a bloody decade to come.
Now the Gaddafi regime is proving resistant to concerted internal opposition to remove it and peaceful western pressure for it to go. Yesterday David Cameron asked his Ministry of Defence to draw up plans for a “no fly zone” in Libya, which could prevent the Colonel bombing his enemies. It’s not Belgrade 1999, but the rhetoric about not “standing idly by” has a similar ring. Nick Robinson asks whether this could be "Cameron's first war".
No wonder some Libyans are nervous. They need only look at Iraq to see the possible costs of western “help“. The debate still rages as to whether the country is better off, now that its bloodthirsty dictator has been removed and replaced by foreign soldiers and a political vacuum.
Never mind Iraq, the Yugoslav bombings are still cited as the model for successful intervention: even though they were disastrous for Serbia, Kosovo and the wider Balkan region. The only genuine winners were politicians in NATO countries whose reputations were given a short-term boost.
While the explicit intention of Operation Allied Force was humanitarian, it quickly turned into a bombardment designed to bring down the Milosevic government. Its brutal tactic was to destroy Serbia and make normal life untenable for the population, in order to force “regime change”,
As a predictable consequence, in Kosovo, the protection of whose population was the ostensible aim of the bombing, the Yugoslav army’s anti-insurgency tactics turned into all out ethnic cleansing. The Balkan refugee crisis became incomparably worse.
In Serbia proper, NATO unleashed indirect chemical warfare, deliberately targeting factories, oil-refineries and similar targets; a tactic outlawed by the Geneva conventions. Cluster bombs peppered the Serb countryside, resulting in deaths and maiming civilians.
The attack's environmental and economic cost was felt far beyond the former Yugoslavia. As oil from bombed refineries poured into the Danube, the wider region suffered. Romania's struggling economy alone lost an estimated £1 billion - an astronomical sum for that country at the time.
And of course the bombing's consequences still disfigure the region to this day. The Milosevic regime is long gone, but Serbia’s politics and economy remain stunted. He must take a large share of the blame, but the bombing made things incomparably worse.
In the aftermath of its Operation, rather than sponsor a process of reconciliation, NATO put in place a runt state - Kosovo - still unrecognised by four of its own members. The legacy is crime, smuggling, gangsterism and reverse-cleansing. Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Haksim Thaci, has been exposed as a murderous thug, but to paraphrase Harry Truman, he’s NATO’s murderous thug.
So that takes care of a “successful intervention“. There have been a couple more since, widely regarded as not nearly so successful.
I’m no military expert. I don’t know whether a ’no fly zone’ can be implemented quickly and painlessly. If it is a risk free way of preventing Gaddafi from wreaking mayhem, it should be looked at. But let’s draw the line there right now.