TONY BLAIR sought yet again to justify the conquest of Iraq in a recent speech. He harked back to what he plainly regards as an earlier triumph, NATO's 1999 war against Yugoslavia. Blair cited this as a precedent for the Anglo-American attack on Iraq. Even 'before September 11', he explained, 'the world's view of the justification of military action had been changing. The only clear case in international relations for armed intervention had been self defence... But the notion of intervening on humanitarian grounds had been gaining currency.'
The 1999 war was a case in point. The NATO leaders claimed to be defending the Albanians who make up a majority in the Serbian province of Kosovo from ethnic cleansing by the Serbian nationalist government of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Blair himself, as he recalled in his recent speech, proclaimed a 'doctrine of international community'.
'This is a just war, based not on territorial ambitions but on values,' he told the Economic Club of Chicago in April 1999. Blair concluded that the leading Western powers could override the sovereignty of states that they deemed to be guilty of serious violations of human rights against their own citizens.
Many liberals rallied behind the NATO banner, proclaiming the dawn of a new 'global civil society' whose democratic principles would be backed up by the Pentagon's military muscle.
Blair's latest speech was a fairly obvious ploy to curry favour with these liberals, many of whom found the Iraq war too much to swallow. It was typically dishonest since, of course, the basic justification that both Washington and London gave at the time for attacking Iraq wasn't humanitarianism but self defence. But those pesky weapons of mass destruction have remained stubbornly hidden.
Blair has no choice but to fall back on an appeal to the democratic benefits that Western military might brings to the victims of barbarous tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Hence the revolting sight to which we are regularly subjected on the media of Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP who is Blair's 'human rights' adviser in Iraq, tearfully praising the liberation brought by Western arms.
But Blair's timing in recalling the 1999 war was bad. Last week, almost exactly five years after the bombing started, Kosovo erupted in a ferocious confrontation between the Albanian majority and the Serb minority in Kosovo.
This conflict has been going on for decades, stoked by Milosevic's noxious Serb nationalism. Like the leaders of the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Albanian nationalists in Kosovo appealed to the Western powers as a counterweight to superior Serbian military force. In March 1999 NATO launched its bombing campaign to impose American-drafted terms on Milosevic.
Andrew Bacevich, a US army colonel turned academic, explained later that the war's aim 'was to provide an object lesson to any European state fancying that it was exempt from the rules of the post Cold War era. 'It was not Kosovo that counted, but affirming the dominant position of the United States in a Europe that was unified, integrated and open.'
Initially the object lesson was badly bungled. Milosevic used the NATO bombing as a pretext to expel hundreds of thousands of Albanians from Kosovo. But, in the end, US military superiority won out.
Under a Russian-brokered deal the Yugoslav army withdrew from Kosovo, which became a NATO protectorate governed by a United Nations official. The triumphant Albanian nationalists proceed to drive out as many Serbs as they could. There are now perhaps 100,000 Serbs left in Kosovo, mainly in the north, facing 1.8 million Albanians.
Last week's clashes were the latest round in this process. Kosovo is still legally part of Serbia. The new Serbian prime minister, Vojslav Kostunica, is proposing that Serb areas in Kosovo be given autonomy, perhaps as the first step towards the province's partition. Serb enclaves in central Kosovo have been particularly targeted in the latest violence, apparently in a pre-emptive strike designed to tilt the carve-up the Albanians' way.
Tim Judah wrote in last Sunday's Observer, 'In any partition the north would stay with Serbia. The status of the enclaves would be uncertain. It looks as though Albanian extremists have tried to snuff them out.'
So what Tony Blair's great 'war for values' did was to replace the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs with the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Albanians. It's hardly a great advert for the imperialism of human rights.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The New Mandarins of American Power (£13.99) and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (£5.99). Both are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop-phone 020 7637 1848.