Intervention is about us, not about them

What is most depressing about Western intervention in Kosovo is its predictable form. As has often been the case, intervention is all about us and hardly at all about them. We say that we intervene on behalf of others, but in fact those others are a pretext for action that suits us.

Intervention in Kosovo is good for NATO and is good for the aid industries, but is not, in its current form, at all good for the Albanians in Kosovo. Benefits to NATO are most apparent. Its function, defense against attack on a member, justifies its structure, an integrated command headed by an American. But if no one is about to attack, why allow Americans to boss around your armed forces? Finding a new mission for NATO is crucial if the alliance is to survive. The United States benefits from NATO, which prevents its members from fighting each other. Peace between Germany and France, or Greece and Turkey, can be secured through an integrated military organization. Demonstrating that the alliance can conduct an offensive war outside member territory, though it will not play well in Russia, helps to convince members that there is still something in it for them.

Bombing is good for Americans because it shows off high-tech weaponry without producing casualties. Americans, of course, control NATO, which is why NATO picked this way to demonstrate its continued usefulness. The United States previously invaded countries with beaches so as to show off the marines, considered our strength. But after Somalia, American military commanders have refused to allow armed forces on the ground. Colin Powell set a precedent that holds: a guarantee of no casualties or no one goes anywhere. The result is reliance on air power, preferably missiles from as far away as possible.

NGOs, most of which are American, love this because it’s their chance to get rich. When governments contract with NGOs to provide services, the NGOs have to use the money they’re given for those services. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave enough for their bloated overhead. “Operational services” or “program services” do not refer to money that actually goes to victims. It covers salaries and advertising, Land Rover rentals and “administration.” Less than 20 percent of donations go to non-employees, i.e. refugees or famine victims. When governments insist that the money they supply goes in larger proportion – 50 percent – to victims, NGOs need someone else to supply the money to cover glossy advertising, management and hotels.

This is where individuals come in. We see an ad, and write a check. Save The Children and other NGOs use disasters as advertising opportunities to collect money that is not legally tied to victims. When investigated by the federal government and castigated for false advertising, their response has been to alter slightly the wording on the promotional brochures’ expense statements. Not that the government really cares – it benefits from having NGOs accomplish tasks on its behalf. When pressed further, the NGO will always respond: “but if you don’t give money to us, people will starve.”

But they won’t starve. Before NATO air strikes started, no one was starving. After the war got under way, governments provided NGOs with money as well as relief supplies. The problem is not financial or material. The disaster didn’t start because of a lack of money, and no lack of resources has developed. Trouble for people in and fleeing Kosovo has been caused by soldiers killing or herding people, and by blocked access to safe areas. Serbian soldiers propel them out, and Albanian or Macedonian border guards prevent their movement in, and prevent NGO access.

What’s missing is not money or bombs but the will to give the refugees what they need, rather than what we find easy to give. They need physical protection when and where they are threatened, and a safe place to live. This is in our capacity to provide. Kosovars are threatened on the ground; they need protection on the ground. They need a safe place to live. Providing secure housing is easy, especially for the NATO member countries, which have sophisticated bureaucracies devoted to refugee resettlement and adjustment. We could also give them what they have asked for, weapons so that they can fight on their own behalf. But that would mean that they, rather than we, attack their enemy.

But we don’t want to give them those things. We don’t mind financial costs. Indeed, we want to throw money away, tossing it toward the military and NGOs. What we can’t accept are political costs. Many Americans refuse to bear the costs of casualties; many Americans refuse to accept the cost of unanticipated immigration. (That the refugees are Muslim doesn’t make it easier.) We are unwilling to pursue any policy that has actual consequences for us.

American policy is, then, all about us and not at all about them. If our policy were other-regarding, we would do something that would actually help these refugees. Instead, we do things that help us: strengthen NATO, fight a war from the air, toss money at laughably inefficient and corrupt NGOs to keep the refugees as far from our soil as possible.

By the way, this explains “why not Rwanda?” Sure the suffering there was the same (worse) – but it’s not about their suffering. It’s about us.