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Samantha Power v. Jeremy Scahill: A Debate on U.S. Actions in the Balkans, the Independence of Kosovo, the Iraq Sanctions and Humanitarian Intervention

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As Kosovo declares its independence, we speak to two people who have closely followed the situation in the Balkans. Samantha Power wrote extensively about Bosnia and Kosovo in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent. He covered the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia for Democracy Now! in 1999. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] extensively about, well, the background to all of this, but with the 200,000, perhaps a half-a-million, protesters rallying against Kosovo’s declaration of independence, can you explain what you feel is going on here?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, Kosovo’s status has been frozen for the last nine years. It hasn’t gotten sufficient international attention. The world is polarized — it’s no secret — and to some degree, the polarization between the United States, on the one hand, or perhaps the West and the rest, you might even say, is playing itself out here. I think while you would certainly see protest in Serbia, what has given fuel to those protests is the knowledge that Russia stands behind them from afar, that Greece even stands behind them from afar. I was just watching the footage, and there were the flags of both Serbia, Russia and Greece. That is going to embolden people there.

And I’m not sure Putin is serious. I don’t think he’s going to put anything where his mouth is at present. He’s threatening to recognize all kinds of other autonomous movements around the world in retaliation.

But there’s no question that it’s both incredibly important for the fate of Serbs living within Kosovo that minority rights are protected, that we actually start to focus on the welfare of people who live in Kosovo, that the protests are diffused and somehow the Serbian people are given a path to some kind of integration into the West to end this kind of isolation and exclusionism that’s been going on, because it’s just — there’s so many people left out in Serbia, but moreover that we get to the structural issues in the international system, such that people don’t start threatening to recognize secession movements all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re an adviser to Barack Obama, in addition to having just published another book, but I wanted to play for you Hillary Clinton’s comments last night in the debate, at the Democratic presidential debate in Austin, when she brought up the issue of Kosovo. This is what she had to say.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I’ve supported the independence of Kosovo, because I think it is imperative that in the heart of Europe we continue to promote independence and democracy, and I would be moving very aggressively to hold the Serbian government responsible with their security forces to protect our embassy. Under international law, they should be doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Samantha Power, your response?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, I just think it’s one thing — I mean, on some level, I agree. I think that if there wasn’t violence in Serbia today because of the declaration of independence, there would be violence in Kosovo today because the Albanians were literally just recoiling under international occupation, I mean, ultimately. So we were sort of in a lose-lose situation once it got to this point. And the tragedy is that the nine years weren’t used to do more to actually sort of deepen the economic ties and deepen the minority rights protections and so forth in Kosovo and that it has come to this. But I think that one has to be very careful not to think about Kosovo a la carte, and, to some degree, this sort of “I’m going to stampede ahead” and “We’re going to recognize this” and, you know, “The Serbs are responsible yet again” — I mean, that kind of implication probably isn’t going to do the people of Serbia any favors in the long term. We’ve really got to start to think about integration and not simply denunciation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeremy, I’d like to ask you, you covered the original US-led NATO bombings in that region years ago, and it was raised then as sort of an example of humanitarian intervention that worked. And here we are a decade later, and we still have major, major divisions and problems in the region. Your perspective, as you look at this new upsurge of problems?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I find it very interesting that the Bush administration is talking about international law and how international law needs to be upheld for the protection of the US embassy. That certainly is true, but notice the selectivity of when the Bush administration chooses to recognize that there actually is international law. I mean, this is an administration that refuses to support any kind of an effective and independent international criminal court, preferring to support these sort of ad hoc tribunals, which have been used against Yugoslavia and certainly with Rwanda.

In the case of Hillary Clinton, what’s particularly interesting is that she and her advisers, which include many of the key figures involved with the original bombing of Yugoslavia and, in fact, the architects of much of US policy in the 1990s toward Yugoslavia, people like Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, that Clinton holds this up as a sort of successful US foreign policy or international action.

And I think it’s important to remember that this declaration of independence from Kosovo was immediately supported by the Bush administration and many powerful countries in the world. I was recalling during the 2000 elections in the United States, being in Serbia and people joking that the worst thing that could happen to us is that Al Gore would be president, because then we’ll have the Democrats continuing to focus on us, and if Bush is president, he’ll ignore us. And, well, of course, Bush immediately recognized Kosovo, and that sort of seals the deal, in a sense.

But it’s important to remember how we got to this point. I mean, Samantha was talking a little bit about the broader context here. The fact is that this was sort of Clinton’s Iraq, in a way. He bombed Yugoslavia for seventy-eight days with no United Nations mandate. I was at the UN the night that it began, and Kofi Annan was sort of beside himself that the action had been taken so swiftly, this military action, seventy-eight days of bombing of Yugoslavia under the auspices of NATO.

Wesley Clark was the commander of those operations, the Supreme Allied Commander. They bombed a Serbian television station, killing sixteen media workers; some of them were media workers, some of them were makeup artists, others were engineers. They directly targeted passenger trains and then fabricated a video afterwards to make it seem as though it was a split-second decision. They killed thousands of civilians.

And the fact was that the exaggerations of what was happening in Kosovo by William Cohen, the Defense Secretary at the time, who talked about a million missing people — then it was scaled back to 100,000, then 50,000, then 10,000, and now the official number is that there were 2,700 people that were killed, and there’s been no determination of their ethnicity. Now, I can tell you from being on the ground in Kosovo that some of the worst violence that occurred, slaughtering of Albanians, happened after the NATO bombing began. And the fact was that the US sabotaged the work of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the weeks leading up to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

And I think that what we have to understand here is that this is where the sort of liberals, like Hillary Clinton, come together with the neocons, because there are a lot of similarities between what happened in Yugoslavia and what happened in Iraq, with the lead-up to the war, the disregard for international law or international consensus, and then the outright killing of civilians under the auspices of a humanitarian intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: Samantha Power, your response? And you’re saying Barack Obama isn’t that different on this issue than Hillary Clinton in his attitude to what has happened.

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, I think he feels like it has come to this point, and, as I said, there was going to be major violence in Kosovo if the status of the province was left untended to.

I do have a different perspective from Jeremy from that period, as one who spent time in Kosovo in advance of the NATO bombing and wondered what on earth was going to be the fate of those people if the Serbian regime remained in power, and disagree with some of the specific facts of what he said about what actually happened during the bombing.

But I think the important fact is that we reveal, over time — in academia, one talks about revealed preferences, revealed agendas. If we could put the people of Kosovo finally at the centerpiece of our thinking about what to do about the region, or the people of Serbia, for that matter, I mean, whatever the motives are for getting involved, whatever happened back in 1999 — and I’m not saying we should brush it under the rug, by any means — but what is revealed again and again is when we pay attention to these kind of places, it’s a spasm, and it’s usually for some combination of national — something to do with national interest. At that time, it was probably NATO credibility. But I have to say, if it weren’t for the atrocities against the Kosovo Albanians, there would not have been an intervention. It wasn’t merely about NATO credibility. You don’t just go bomb gratuitously — and I recognize that I’m probably in the minority at this table in believing this to be true.

But having gone in, you had a responsibility to the province, you had a responsibility to the Serbian minority. And what happened is we got involved and then turned our attention elsewhere. And Bush, in coming into office, pulled US troops out of Kosovo, basically said, “This isn’t my problem,” and then started to pay attention at the moment we recognized Kosovo’s independence. That’s not the way you go. You don’t sort of spasm here, spasm there. It’s going to produce this kind of turbulence and this kind of violence.

JEREMY SCAHILL: What the United States did, though, right after NATO forces entered Yugoslavia is they brought in some high-profile thugs and criminals, people like Agim Ceku, who became the commander, the military commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army. This was a man who was a war criminal from the war in Bosnia when he served in the Croatian military. He was trained by a US mercenary company called Military Professional Resources Incorporated. He was the guy that the United States was basically bolstering to become the new head of the Kosovo army, and it’s quite interesting that that man is a war criminal.

And the fact is that Camp Bondsteel is of tremendous, significant importance, significance, to the United States for geopolitical reasons, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Bush moved so swiftly to support the independence of Kosovo, is that the government in Pristina is very easy to manipulate. The government in Belgrade, that’s a tougher story. Vojislav Kostunica, who’s one of the main political figures, the prime minister of the country, is a fairly rightwing isolationist and I don’t think would be too happy about a US military base operating on Serbian soil.

But, you know, in response to some of what Samantha was saying, in the 1990s, the worst humanitarian crises in the world, certainly Rwanda and other African nations, certainly in Europe, but Iraq — I mean, where is the label of genocide for the US policy toward Iraq? It was Bill Clinton who initiated the longest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam against Iraq under the guise of humanitarian intervention in the north and south of that country, the sanctions killing hundreds of thousands of people. I mean, we have had one of the greatest mass slaughters in history, in modern history, in Iraq, going from 1990 to the present, and yet everyone talks about this as though it’s not genocide, as though it’s not part of that bigger picture. Clinton selling weapons to the Turks to slaughter the Kurds — I mean, there were all sorts of horrific things happening in the world. And it’s the selectivity of US foreign policy that I think is really outrageous. It’s not that no one should do anything about it; it’s that the Iraqis — it’s sort of, you know, good victims, bad victims.

AMY GOODMAN: Samantha Power?

SAMANTHA POWER: Where does one start? I mean, I would just like to know — I guess Jeremy just asked — the question is, since you’ve spent so much time there, at the moment that we’re at now, what do we do, in fact? I mean, are you suggesting that then basically the Serbian — the Kosovars should become part of Serbia? I mean, I felt like we hit a stalemate, and something had to budge. There was going to be violence in Kosovo. And I, again, don’t mean to brush all the crimes of American foreign policy under the rug, and I’ve written extensively also about sanctions and the toll of sanctions and so forth in Iraq. But just to stick to this moment —-

JEREMY SCAHILL: But is that genocide, according to you?

SAMANTHA POWER: No, but we can talk about that. I don’t think the Clinton administration set out to deliberately destroy the Iraqi people as such.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Oh, I totally disagree. But what Madeleine Albright said, it was worth the price, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi victims of US policy.

SAMANTHA POWER: So can I just ask: so what exactly do we do now in terms of Kosovo, as one who has spent a lot of time there?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, now, I think we have a very serious problem, because I think, and as Professor Robert Hayden from the University of Pittsburgh pointed out last night, who of course is fluent in Serbian, spent a lot of time there and is a specialist in international law, there could have been some kind of a negotiated border agreement, I think, where the Serbs would have been guaranteed protection. I mean, I was talking to sources in Serbia last night who said that now the Serbian military is actually engaging in incursions into the northern part of Kosovo. This could potentially be a very serious issue.

And I think that even if we look at it from the most mainstream political perspective, it was unwise for the US to come in so swiftly without giving the Serbian government an opportunity to deal with the safety of the Serbs in Mitrovica and in some of those border areas. And I think, internally in Serbia now, one of the reasons we’re seeing so much protest is that the Milosevic government had a despicable policy toward refugees from all of the various former Yugoslav republics who found themselves in Serbia. And you have literally hundreds of thousands of Serbs who are sort of left without a place to go and don’t have full rights in Serbia. I just think it was very poor diplomacy on the part of the Bush administration to do this so swiftly, and I think it raises serious questions about what the US agenda there is. So we have a very serious international crisis there right now.

SAMANTHA POWER: I just think to call it “swift,” when for nine years Kosovo’s status has been hanging in limbo, is not right. And part of the issue is what -— even stipulating everything you said about NATO bombing, what exactly do you do then about a province that is hanging by a thread where you have a Serbian minority? I mean, one of the things that I think we don’t talk near enough about is that there are no takers for the demand that monitors be put into Kosovo. You don’t see European governments, you don’t see other international governments around, you don’t see people stepping up to say, you know, “I prefer to do more than simply denounce George Bush; I’d actually like to help the Serbian minority in Kosovo.” Those minority rights protections have been in play for two years. The Serbian government wasn’t interested in negotiating and being a part of anything that would constitute a compromise in terms of Kosovo’s future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is your sense that the rush or the quick movement of the Bush administration to support this independence is in some way effected also by the continuing tensions between the United States and the rest of the Muslim world, that this is a — because I would assume that in other parts of the Muslim world, there’s support for this — for Kosovo independence?

SAMANTHA POWER: Can we just push back a little on this idea of swiftness, again, as I wasn’t very articulate just now? But there has been a process overseen by the United Nations by Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish prime minister [president], for I think now going on three years, as basically an effort to do this peaceably. I don’t see how there was ever going to be a way to get out of this bind without offending either Serbia or the ethnic Albanians and either stemming violence in Serbia or stemming violence in Kosovo. But whether there could have been a compromise or not, it was an international diplomat, who has the respect — allegedly, anyway — of both sides, who tried try to come up with a solution which would have protected the Serbian minority and would have protected hopefully ethnic Albanians, as well. That was rejected. There were no negotiations that were accepted by Serbia. Then, at a certain point, the Albanians said, OK, after three years, we’re going to declare independence, or we’re going — this is going to explode. Now, they don’t care about the Serbian minority at all. They’d just assume the Serbs be cleansed, I couldn’t agree with Jeremy more.

But the idea that this is swift, what it is is a swift response to the declaration of independence in the hopes, almost, that it will just go away, that if you could just get enough countries within the UN to recognize this independence, then maybe that will — cooler heads will prevail. And the irony of what happened yesterday in Belgrade is there’s some chance that perhaps the perverse counter-effect to the violence is that maybe in Serbia this will actually — because of the fear of thuggery and so forth, that tempers will abate. But I’m just trying to think about how to go forward in an impossible situation where Kosovo is also now sadly the playground for great powers, as it has been arguably for a very long time, rather than a place where people are actually focusing on the welfare of the people in peril.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, but what I do think is of particular concern to people in this country is when Hillary Clinton holds this up as a success. I mean, did you support, you know, the total sabotage of diplomacy at Rambouillet, when the United States put forward an occupation agreement that said that NATO ships and vessels and troops would enjoy free and unrestricted access throughout all of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo, and then said, “Oh, Milosevic rejected peace”? The reality was that Albright and Holbrooke delivered basically a document that no sovereign country on earth would have signed, and it was a setup. It was an occupation agreement that said immunity for US troops traveling around. I mean, this is how the Democrats and Republicans come together in their foreign policy. I mean, this is the Hillary Clinton-George Bush alliance. This is how international diplomacy is waged: through bombs.

SAMANTHA POWER: So Kofi Annan, who you invoked earlier, gave a very good speech in the middle of the NATO war, which was: I don’t want to live in a world where countries like the United States can just trample over the UN Security Council, as you alluded to earlier in terms of both Kosovo and Iraq. I also don’t want to live in a world where a government can commit massacres with impunity. Kofi Annan was much more torn —-

JEREMY SCAHILL: As Clinton did in Iraq -—


JEREMY SCAHILL: —- and Bush is doing in Iraq.

SAMANTHA POWER: If I may — Kofi Annan was hugely torn about the Kosovo intervention. He didn’t want to see the UN Security Council trampled, you’re right. There wasn’t adequate international legal authorization for that, by any means. But he also didn’t want to live in a situation where the Serbs could massacre the ethnic Albanians at will.

Sergio Vieria de Mello, who at some point we will maybe talk about, was also somebody totally loyal to the UN Charter, totally loyal to the idea of civilian protection. He also supported the war in Kosovo. So, yes, in fact, I did support the Rambouillet negotiations. I don’t see it at all the way that you did. And, again, I haven’t heard a scenario by which ethnic Albanians would actually have been free of massacres and free of fear in the scenario which would have left the province alone in a way that you suggest.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both on this subject. Samantha, when we come back from our break, we’re going to talk about Chasing the Flame. We’re going to talk about Sergio de Mello. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. Jeremy Scahill, a Democracy Now! correspondent, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

. It was just announced this week that he won a Polk Award for that book. Samantha Power, with us, her new book is called Chasing the Flame. We’ll talk about it in a minute.

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