Ignatieff: "Virtual War"

"Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond;"
By Michael Ignatieff;
Holt; 246 pp.


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  5/29/2000

When NATO bombs started falling on Yugoslavia last spring, debate over the campaign to oust Serb troops and paramilitaries from Kosovo fell mainly into two schools of thought.

Those who supported the intervention, the Western alliance's first serious war effort, argued on humanitarian grounds that force was required to halt Serbian atrocities and to end the forced emigration of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, nearly a million of whom had been driven from their homes, often at gunpoint. The other position went something like this: No matter how terrible the violence on the ground, it was wrong and hypocritical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to employ means just as violent in defense of its principles. To this camp, negotiations and diplomatic pressure were the only justifiable responses.

In "Virtual War," Michael Ignatieff, a journalist who has written extensively about the Balkans, lays siege to the latter school of thought. Still, despite his vigorous support of NATO's forcing the Serbs to withdraw from Kosovo, he highlights the potential pitfalls and abuses of such a precedent. While Ignatieff sketches the conflict's history and comes to (often dubious) conclusions about its political and military consequences, his book is essentially an essay in justification of using force to prevent mass crimes against humanity.

Perhaps the most interesting part comes in the fourth chapter, a transcript of a heated exchange of e-mail between Ignatieff and Robert Skidelsky, an author, liberal philosopher, and independent member of Britain's House of Lords. Unlike many partisans, who give short shrift to or distort opposing views, Ignatieff allows Skidelsky to present his dissent elaborately and, more important, in his own words. And their dispute is far more nuanced than a black-or-white disagreement; it's more a matter of moral, legal, and political shades of gray.

Although Skidelsky recognized Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's savage history of ethnic cleansing, he argued that NATO violated international law by acting without authorization from the United Nations. "Operation Allied Force," as NATO dubbed the bombing, served only to increase tensions with Russia and China, he said, making the world more prone to war. The alliance, in his view, sent a lamentable message around the world: Force, not law, governs international affairs.

In response, Ignatieff defends NATO's bypassing of the United Nations, citing the inevitable prospect of Russian and Chinese vetoes and the UN's failure to prevent massacres in the previous Balkan war in Bosnia. He then defines the crux of his "just war" philosophy: "Armed intervention can only be justified in two instances: First, when human rights abuses rise to the level of a systematic attempt to expel or exterminate large numbers of people who have no means of defending themselves; second, when these abuses threaten the peace and security of neighboring states." Ignatieff also adds this caveat: All diplomatic alternatives must be exhausted first, and force should be used only in a credible way, as a means to a political end, and not simply as punishment.

The roots of his philosophy derive from NATO's much maligned dithering over the war in Bosnia. Ignatieff and many other witnesses of the Serbs' barbaric shelling of Sarajevo in the early '90s called on the West to do something to blunt the violence. And after NATO ultimately did bomb the Serbs - which pushed the warring parties to sign the 1995 Dayton peace accord - the lesson for Ignatieff was clear: Used properly, force can be humanitarian.

So when the sparks started flames in the tinderbox of Kosovo last year, history informed such observers as Ignatieff that NATO should not wait around for the violence to escalate, as it did in Bosnia - that the West should act earlier rather than later.

To those against the air campaign, however, NATO seemed all too eager to use force. The alliance's open threat to bomb the recalcitrant Serbs during the prewar peace talks in Rambouillet, France, made the negotiations seem like a ruse. And if anything, the lesson they say the bombing in Bosnia taught was that force is the only way to settle a conflict in the Balkans.

In the end, Ignatieff points out that his intervention strategy is vulnerable to manipulation. A savvy despot might easily pervert the terms "human rights" or "crimes against humanity" to justify invading another country or squelching his own people. And Ignatieff is well aware that a modern democracy is also open to such deceit. Indeed, he notes, manipulation of the public is ever easier when such nations can intervene in wars with impunity, leaders bypass congresses and parliaments by not calling their wars "war," and when the upheld values are more rhetorical than real.

"Those who support military intervention in defense of human rights," Ignatieff warns at the end of the book, "need to back up their abstract commitments with devout attention to the question of whether, by intervening, we end up destroying what we tried to save."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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