Europe's left backs NATO

Among most ardent supporters of strikes on Serbs: a Green foreign

In 1990, as left-wing French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevnement walked out of the government in protest against the Gulf War, he declared famously that "a minister shuts his trap, or he gets out."

In 1999, the same Mr. Chevnement is Interior Minister in a Socialist-led French government, and he is not happy about his country's role in the bombardment of Yugoslavia. But he has "shut his trap."

Europe's left-wing parties, which for many years made a fetish out of anti-Americanism and often harbored a strong dose of pacifism, have remained largely silent or have even been actively supportive in the face of the US-led bombing campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Indeed, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that is conducting the operation is made up almost completely of countries led by Social Democratic governments. And they are showing little compunction about using force to impose a peace settlement giving autonomy to the Serbian province of Kosovo.

"There is a new generation of leaders in the United States and in Europe, who were born after World War II, who hail from the progressive side of politics, but who are prepared to be as firm as any of our predecessors, right or left, in seeing this thing through," British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in Newsweek last week.

"We are fighting not for territory but for values," he added. "For a new internationalism where the brutal repression of ethnic groups will not be tolerated."

Mr. Blair's attitude to the war in Kosovo stands in stark contrast to his stance as a young Labour Party parliamentary candidate during the 1982 Falklands War, which he opposed, along with most of his colleagues on the left.

Even more striking is the change of heart that has come over Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister and leader of the environmentalist-pacifist oriented Greens. Twenty years ago Mr. Fischer was a street-fighting revolutionary for whom US imperialism was one of the world's great evils. Today he is enthusiastic in his support for the German pilots taking out Serb radar sites so as to clear the way for American bombers.

Partly, of course, the European left's general backing for the war stems from the fact that the enemy, Yugoslav President Milosevic, is widely portrayed today as a fascist, not as the communist he always considered himself to be.

And while the Gulf War was widely seen in Europe as a bid to safeguard US oil interests, the current campaign has no economic undertones. Nor is it hard to feel sympathy for Kosovo Albanian refugees, which was perhaps not the case for Kuwaiti sheikhs in 1990.

But more deeply, European politicians are convinced that Milosevic's campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, and NATO's air campaign to get the refugees home, is "a question of what kind of Europe we will have in the 21st century" as Fischer put it recently.

Recalling Hitler, not Vietnam

Support has come from such leading leftist intellectuals in Europe as Serge July, editor of the French daily Liberation. "There was nothing left but war to defend essential democratic values and, let us say it with gravity, a conception of European civilization," Mr. July wrote last week.

If the 1968 generation of European radicals cut its teeth on demonstrations against the Vietnam War, that conflict is not the reference point today for Europeans considering the fate of Kosovo, and how to deal with it.

Rather, lessons are drawn from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, when he acquiesced in Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia, refusing to defend what he called "a small country a long way away."

"I lived through the 1930s in Europe, and I have been convinced since then that you absolutely have to intervene in the face of crimes against humanity," says Vittorio Foa, grand old man of the Italian left.

The television images of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian Kosovar deportees have inevitably recalled the Holocaust to European minds, and convinced many otherwise peaceful people of the need for force.

"A bomb can be an educational tool, as we know in Germany," wrote the German poet Drs Grunbein in last week's edition of the newspaper Der Spiegel. "Half a century ago nationalism was pulled out of a completely stubborn people like a rotten tooth."

Still, some reservations

Not that leftist leaders have put up no opposition to NATO's operation. In France, for example, the two small Trotskyite parties have protested, and the Communist Party is also opposed because of "the trivialization of war as a way to resolve problems" and the fact that "the bombing is having a completely opposite effect to the one it was officially meant to have" in the words of Communist leader Francis Wurtz.

But the two Communist ministers have not resigned from the French government, any more than the German Greens have withdrawn from their coalition government with the Social Democrats.

In Britain, well-known radical figures such as the playwright Harold Pinter have expressed their opposition to the NATO campaign, but they have won little sympathy on the left.

Indeed, says political commentator Isabel Hilton, the Kosovo debate among British left-wing activists "has had more to do with the effectiveness of the air operation" and whether ground forces should be sent in to secure Kosovo against Serb aggression.

And in an ironic twist, anti-Americanism is now the preserve of those on the left who worry that Washington is not interventionist enough, and may not be prepared to risk casualties in order to roll back ethnic cleansing.

"The argument is against American domination of NATO and whether that renders NATO unfit to fight a war because of the bodybag issue," says Ms. Hilton.

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