Throughout the 20th century, the US had been in the business of overthrowing governments that it did not like, almost always because such governments did not create conditions unilaterally favourable to US business interests. From overthrowing multiple Latin American governments, most famously the leftist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, to the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, to the installation of the Pakistani Dictator General Zia who executed the democratically elected Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the US has been ‘changing regimes’ long before the post-Cold War era. However, in the 21st century, the idea of ‘regime change’ went from an unspoken reality to a stated goal among increasingly war-hungry US leaders.
A “new world order” – a regime change order
After the Cold War, when George H.W. Bush declared a “new world order”, the US and its European allies began backing radical far-right nationalist and Takfiri insurgencies throughout Yugoslavia, beginning in 1991. This resulted in the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and the anti-western and therefore unrecognised Republika Srpska. In 1995, the then Serbian President Slobodan Milošević came to the United States to sign the Dayton Accords with his Takfiri nemesis Alija Izetbegović and the neo-fascist Croatian leader Franjo Tuđman. At the time, the Dayton Accords were hailed as a ‘western’ triumph. This itself came after US military action in favour of Takfiri militants in Bosnia beginning in 1992.
Indeed, the west had successfully turned the most peaceful and prosperous state in modern southern Europe into a rump and for Washington, Britain and Berlin, this counted as a success. Yugoslavia was by 1995, reduced to the constituent republics of Serbia and Montenegro. But for a US busily drafting the doctrines of regime change as articulated in the so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine, even a reduced Yugoslavia was too much to live with.
The Albanian terrorist war against Orthodox Christians
Since the 1980s, radical Albanian terrorist groups had committed acts of atrocities against the Orthodox Christian population of the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo. In 1993, these groups congealed into the KLA, a well-organised terrorist group that began a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against Orthodox Serbs which even saw the killing of multiple ethnic Albanians who remained patriotic and peaceful Yugoslav citizens, content to live in harmony with their Serb neighbours.
While UN Security Council Resolution 1160 listed the KLA as a terrorist group, the US continued to finance its campaign of ethnic cleansing and later spun a narrative that it was the Yugoslav armed forces that were to blame for an ethnic cleansing campaign, when in reality, Yugoslavia was engaged in a modest anti-terror operation aimed at the foreign armed and funded KLA.
A war for European demagogues and for Monica Lewinsky
By March of 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was out to make a name for himself as a so-called ‘liberal interventionist’, while a new German government was keen on destroying what remained of Yugoslavia in order to exploit previously unavailable economic avenues in the Balkans, while increasing German soft-power among Albanian radicals. At the same time, Bill Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal that he was desperate to push out of the headlines. This perfect storm conspired to convince Clinton to join his eager European partners and foment an illegal bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
NATO aggression against Chinese and Russian targets in Yugoslavia
The NATO war which was not authorised by the UN witnessed the killing of thousands of civilians both by the NATO airstrikes themselves and by NATO’s KLA allies. During the war, hospitals, schools, homes, a civilian television station and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade were all destroyed.
During group operations, Russian peace keepers had temporarily based themselves in Yugoslavia’s Pristina airport. It subsequently became known that NATO Commander General Wesley Clark of the United States was prepared to send in NATO troops to forcibly wrestle control of the airport from the Russian peace keeping units to his own NATO forces. This would have almost certainly resulted in an exchange of fire between Russian and NATO forces, something which hadn’t even happened at the height of the Cold War. This was prevented only because another NATO officers, Britain’s General Michael Jackson, refused to obey Clark’s order to move against the Russian peace keepers. At the time, it was reported he said to Clark, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you”.Thus, in a war on Yugoslavia, NATO ran the risk of a wider world war with both China and Russia.
In hindsight, the NATO war on Yugoslavia was a kind of blood-soaked dress rehearsal for the broader regime change wars of the 21st century including those aimed at Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The war in Yugoslavia followed this new model in a calculated series of steps whose pattern has been repeated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and later unsuccessfully in Syria. The pattern as is follows:
1. Publicly discredit a foreign leader whom the west previous had agreements or pacts with.
Just consider how in the 1980s Saddam Hussein was a US ally in the war against Iran. Likewise in the 1980s, the political movements associated with the Afghan Mujaheddin that became the Taliban of the 1990s, were US allies in a war against the USSR and the legitimate Afghan government. Furthermore, Libya and the US reached a rapprochement in 2003, while Syria’s President al-Assad was considered someone who could ‘work with the west’ right up to the 2011 US proxy war on Syria.
Thus while Slobodan Milošević went to the US in 1995 to sign a widely celebrated peace deal, it was only four short years later that he became re-invented as public enemy number one.
2. Turn the defender into the aggressor
Before the US portrayed the Libyan government as an aggressor for fighting the terrorist group al-Qaeda, before the US openly took the side of the head-chopping Al-Nusra Front in Syria against the secular, pluralistic Syrian Arab Republic and before a staunchly anti-al-Qaeda Saddam was perversely accused of being behind 9/11, the Yugoslav government was accused of committing ethnic cleansing, when it reality they were defending against the ethnic cleaning committed by the terrorist KLA.
3. Slander the ‘enemy regime’ as anti-democratic and therefore dangerous
In 1999, few Americans knew or cared about the internal politics of Yugoslavia. The same was true of the Taliban, Saddam, Gaddafi and al-Assad. Therefore, in order to create an easily digested narrative, the leaders who stood in the way of US hegemony needed to be painted as anti-democratic, tyrannical, mechanical and evil, before a gullible US public who in 1999 were busy choking in the easily understood Lewinsky scandal.
4. Ignore the UN and bomb away
Like other regime change wars, most notably Iraq, the NATO war on Yugoslavia was not authorised by the UN or any other legitimate international body. Therefore it was totally illegal: it was a war crime. The ‘one rule for you and one rule for us’ attitude that continues to drive the US led NATO alliance, was therefore cast in stone in 1999, thus paving the way for a future where the UN could serve only as an organisation to occasionally rubber stamp US aggression, but one that was ultimately incapable of stopping US aggression.
For the US and its NATO partners, the war on Yugoslavia was a dress rehearsal for what was to come during the presidencies of Bush, Obama and almost certainly Trump. But for the thousands of dead civilians whose country was ripped out from under them, the war on Yugoslavia remains the crime of the century. Yugoslavia was a country that stood against fascist aggression in the 1940s, only to fall to terrorist forces whose forebeareres had allied themselves with fascism during the Second World War. Even 19 years after the war, thousands of refugees remain without permanent homes after fleeing from the Serbian Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija, which remains occupied by NATO forces and former KLA members in charge of a regime ruling the occupied territory.
Yugoslavia never threatened a single foreign nation, but the large powers of central and western Europe conspired with the United States to turn a peaceful part of southern Europe into smouldering inferno. For the wider world, everything changed on September the 11th, 2001. An attack whose official explanation fewer and fewer people believe, set off a chain ‘reaction’ of aggressive wars that in turn unleashed a wave of international terrorism that ultimately gave birth to Daesh.
But before the world had September the 11th, 2001, Yugoslavia had the 24th of March, 1999. Yugoslavia was sacrificed on the altar of ‘regime change war’ and the US has never looked back since.