Commentary

Destroying Serbia in Order to Save It

By Gary Dempsey
June 8, 1999
Whether or not recent diplomatic breakthroughs bring an end to NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia, one thing is clear: President Clinton has insisted that the United States has “no quarrel with the Serbian people” and that NATO’s bombs are directed only against “President Milosevic’s ability to make war against the people of Kosovo.” Similarly, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea assures the world that NATO’s daily bombing raids “are not aimed against the Serbian people” but against Serbia’s “ability to direct and prosecute its continuing campaign of aggression” in Kosovo.

Prof. Mladjan Dinkic, a free-market economist at the University of Belgrade, sees things differently. Two and a half years ago he and hundreds of thousands of Serbs boldly took to the streets of Belgrade to protest the Milosevic regime and demand justice and democratic reform.

Today, Dinkic is appalled by NATO’s de facto war against Yugoslavia’s economy: “NATO politicians keep repeating that the goal of the military action is to punish Milosevic’s so-called war machine and to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo,” Dinkic explains. But after 14,000 NATO sorties and 6,000 bombs, “many Yugoslav industrial facilities have been destroyed, as well as a great deal of transportation, telecommunications and other infrastructure… . It does not take much reckoning to realize that the destruction of factories, bridges and other civilian installations has brought no damage, political or otherwise, to Mr. Milosevic, but only to the citizens of Yugoslavia, whose president happens to be Mr. Milosevic.”

According to Dinkic’s figures, Yugoslavia’s GDP for 1999 has already been reduced by 25 percent, and it could be reduced by as much as 50 percent, depending on the duration of NATO’s air war. That level of economic loss would be greater than that inflicted on Yugoslavia during World War II, and Dinkic estimates that if the bombing were to stop today, it would take Yugoslavia 10 years to get back to where it was economically just two months ago.

Dinkic’s appraisal of the economic devastation would not be challenged by the chairman of NATO’s military committee, Gen. Klaus Naumann. Naumann agrees that Yugoslavia’s economy has already been set back by at least a decade and estimates that the alliance’s air campaign could eventually turn back the clock half a century. Milosevic, insists Naumann, “may end up being the ruler of rubble.” NATO is willing to reduce a country of 10 million people to a heap of worthless debris if its leader doesn’t comply with NATO’s demands. Perhaps the general intends to replace the Vietnam-era contradiction, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” with “We had to destroy the country in order to save it.”

Dinkic also predicts that the destruction of industrial facilities in Yugoslavia will leave many workers with nothing to do and that Yugoslavia’s exceptionally high prewar unemployment rate of 27 percent could soon double. Moreover, he worries that with its industry destroyed and annual per capita income likely to fall below $1,000, Yugoslavia will not be able to sustain even its current low level of health care and social services. If the aerial onslaught continues, Dinkic fears that Yugoslavia’s civilian population could be endangered by the secondary effects of a prolonged bombing campaign: shortages of food, fuel and medicines; poorly functioning hospitals and destruction of water, sewage and sanitation systems.

The U.S. Air Force commander in charge of the Kosovo campaign, Lt. Gen. Michael Short, wouldn’t disagree with Dinkic’s predictions. In fact, Short recently admitted that NATO is trying to do more than just hurt the Yugoslav military. It’s trying to break the will of the Serbian people and make ordinary Serbs so miserable and fearful that they will force Milosevic to pull out of Kosovo. NATO planners, the general explains, hope Serbs will react to the economic devastation of their country in the following way: “If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?’ And at some point, you make the transition from applauding Serb machismo against the world to thinking what your country is going to look like if this continues.”

In other words, NATO is deliberately causing civilian suffering to create political pressures inside Serbia. What President Clinton and NATO advertise as an air war against Yugoslavia’s military capabilities is really a war of attrition against the Serbian people to get them to force Milosevic to do what the West wants. Unfortunately, NATO is not only destroying Yugoslavia’s economy but also creating another failed state in the Balkans — thereby creating one more obstacle to regional stability.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.