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June 29 1999

NATO, the Left Hand of God
By Slavoj Zizek

NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia is over. It is therefore time to ask what the meaning of this war war. What were its ideological and political consequences?
Not long ago, Vaclev Havel maintained (in an essay titled "Kosovo and the End of the Nation State") that the bombing of Yugoslavia, for which there was no UN mandate, "placed human rights above the rights of states. . . . But this did not come into being in some irresponsible way, as an act or aggression or in contempt of international law. On the contrary. It happened about of respect for rights, for rights that stand above those which are protected by the sovereignty of states. The Alliance acted out of respect for human rights, in a way commanded not only by conscience but by the relevant documents of international law." This "higher law" has its "deepest roots outside the perceptible world." "While the state is the work of man, man is the work of God." In other words: NATO can violate international law because it is acting as the immediate instrument of God's "higher law." If that's not religious fundamentalism, the concept has no meaning.
Havel's statement is a great example of what Ulrich Beck back in April called "military humanism" or "military pacifism" (in a feuilleton in the Sueddeutscher Zeitung). The problem is not so much one of Orwellian oxymora like the famous "War is Peace." (In my opinion the term "pacificism" was never meant seriously. When people buck up and are honest with themselves, the paradox of military pacificism disappears.) [Translators note: "pacifism" has a broader meaning in German than it does in English - it includes roughly everything we would think of as "anti-war sentiment" or "anti-war movement." So a free translation of "military pacificism" would be roughly "war by people that have always said they were against it." But Beck's phrase is kind of famous, so let's leave it.] The problem is also not that the targets of the bombing weren't chosen on entirely moral grounds. The real problem is that a purely humanitarian, purely ethical justification for NATO's intervention completely depoliticizes it. NATO has shied away from a clearly defined political solution. Its intervention has been cloaked and justified exclusively in the depoliticized language of universal human rights. In this context, men and women are no longer political subjects, but helpless victims, robbed of all political identity and reduced to their naked suffering. In my opinion, this idealist subject-victim is an ideological construct of NATO.
Not only NATO, But Also Nostalgics on the Left, Misunderstand the Causes of the War.
Today we can see that the paradox of the bombing of Yugoslavia is not the one that Western pacifists have been complaining about -- that NATO set off the very ethnic cleansing that it was supposed to be preventing. No, the ideology of victimization is the real problem: it's perfectly fine to help the helpless Albanians against the Serbian monsters, but under no circumstances must they be permitted to throw off this helplessness, to get a hold on themselves as a sovereign and independent political subject - -- a subject that doesn't need the kindly shelter of NATO's "protectorate." No, they have to stay victims. The strategy of NATO is thus perverse in the precise Freudian sense of the word: The other will stay protected so long as it remains the victim.
But it's not only NATO that depoliticized the conflict. So has its opponents on the pseudo-Left. For them, the bombing of Yugoslavia played out the last act of the dismemberment of Tito's Yugoslavia. It acted out the end of a promise, the collapse of a Utopia of multi-ethnic and authentic socialism into the confusion of an ethnic war. Even so sharp-sighted a political philosopher as Alain Badiou still maintains that all sides are equally guilty. There were ethnic cleansers on all sides, he says, among the Serbs, the Slovenes and the Bosnians. "Serbian nationalism is worthless. But in what respect is it worse than the others? It is more popular and it goes back further in time, it has more weapons at its disposal and in the past it doubtless had more opportunities to act out its criminal passions . . Certainly, Milosevic is a brutal nationalist, just as much as his colleagues in Croatia, Bosnia or Albania . . . From the beginning of the conflict the West has been on the side of the weaker nationalisms (the Bosnian, the Kosovar) and against the stronger nationalisms (the Serbian and, by means of subtraction, the Croatian).
It seems to me that this represents a leftist yearning for Yugoslavia lost. The irony is that this nostalgia considers the Serbia of Slobovan Milosevic to be the successor of that dream state -- i.e., exactly the force that so effectively killed that old Yugoslavia. The one political creation that represented the positive heritage of Titoist Yugoslavia -- its much prized multicultural tolerance -- was "Muslim" Bosnia. One could even say that Serbian aggression against Bosnia was aimed at those that clung despairingly to Tito's legacy, to the idea of "brotherhood and unity." It's no wonder that the brilliant commander of the "Muslim" army, General Rasim Delic was an ethnic Serb. It's no wonder that throughout the 90's, "Muslim" Bosnia was the only place in the former Yugoslavia where Tito's portrait still hung on the walls of official waiting rooms.
Threatened by Serbian nationalism, even Slovenian and Croatian nationalism preserved a respect for Titos Yugoslavia, in any case for its fundamental principle, that of the federation of equal constituent states with full sovereignty, including the right to secede. Whoever overlooks that, whoever reduces the war in Bosnia to a civil war between various "ethnic groups," is already on the side of the Serbs. Because in no way was the difference between Milosevic and other national leaders only quantitative. No, Yugoslavia was not hovering on the edge, betrayed equally by all national "secessionists." Its dissolution was much more a dialectical process. Those that "deserted" Yugoslavia were reacting to Serbian nationalism -- that is, to those power groups that were endeavoring to liquidate Tito's legacy. Thus the worst anti-Serbian nationalist stands closer to Tito's legacy than the present Belgrade regime, which maintains itself, in the face of all "secessionists," as the legitimate and legal successor of the former Yugoslavia.
It Was Serbian Aggression Alone, and Not Ethnic Conflict, That Set off the War.
It must be remembered above all that Tito constructed his federation in conscious opposition to pre-war Yugoslavia, which was based on the hegemony of the Serbs as the "founders of unity." The Serbs were at that time the only state-building nation. After the Second World War, Tito wanted to replace this Serb-dominated Yugoslavia with a federal one, a free association of equal and sovereign states that would even have the right of secession. Milosevic's grab for power was in contrast the attempt to rebuild pre-war Yugoslavia, and with it the hegemony of the Serbs. The various "secessionists" were reacting against this attempt at restoration. Their demands were anchored firmly in the principles of Tito's Yugoslavia.
All that yakking popular on the Left about the Ustasche symbols in Tudjman's Croatia doesn't change in the slightest that Serbian aggression against Bosnia in 1992 did not spring out of a conflict between ethnic groups. It was purely and simply the attack of Serb-dominated pre-war Yugoslavia against Tito's post-war Yugoslavia.
Looking back, one has to say that in the debate over NATO's bombing both sides were wrong. Not that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On the contrary, both sides, the supporters as much as the opponents of the bombing, were simply wrong. Both try attempt to take a universal, neutral, and ultimately false standpoint. The supporters of the bombing make their stand on depoliticized human rights. Their opponents describe the post-Yugoslavian war as an ethnic struggle in which all sides are equally guilty. But both sides miss the political essence of the post-Yugoslavian conflict. And that is why the conflict continues to smolder under the ashes. The imposed NATO peace has certainly dammed it up for a while. But it hasn't extinguished it.