Jul 1 1999

Redefining Diplomacy

Press rewrites history to paint Belgrade as 'hard line'

On March 23, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke was in Belgrade to deliver a final ultimatum to Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic: Sign the Rambouillet plan–the document that emerged from the three-month-long talks in France between the Yugoslavian government, ethnic Albanians and the five-nation Contact Group–or be bombed. Milosevic’s government refused to ratify the plan, which envisioned a very high degree of autonomy for Kosovo, enforced with NATO troops. On March 24 the bombing began.

But in the media, March 24 also marked the beginning of a remarkable process of historical revision in which the picture of the previous three months of diplomacy at Rambouillet was seriously distorted. In order to better serve the war effort, establishment news outlets brazenly rewrote the history of pre-war negotiations, presenting Belgrade as rejectionist and the U.S. as reasonable and accommodating.

At the close of the first round of Rambouillet talks (2/24/99), New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger summarized the diplomatic scene by noting that “Mr. Milosevic has shown himself at least as reasonable as the ethnic Albanians about a political settlement for Kosovo.”

He went on to note that Yugoslavia–in the form of Milosevic’s chief negotiator at Rambouillet, Milan Milutinovic–had shown flexibility on the main sticking point: the nature of an international peacekeeping force to implement a settlement in Kosovo:

Already, the Serbian president, Milan Milutinovic, has said that, when negotiations resume on March 15, the Serbs are ready to discuss”an international presence in Kosovo” to carry out political arrangements of any agreement. And other Serbs have floated ideas that include leavening Western forces with lots of Russians.


“Reasonable” becomes a “hard line”

But one month later, on the eve of war, Erlanger’s reporting underwent a remarkable sea change. The journalist’s March 24 dispatch was headlined “U.S. Negotiators Depart, Frustrated by Milosevic’s Hard Line,” giving precisely the opposite impression of his earlier reports–while the Yugoslav position had not changed at all.

The piece was full of quotes from U.S. officials asserting Belgrade’s obstinacy–charging that Milosevic had refused “every opportunity” to avoid NATO bombing; that Milosevic stubbornly “can’t agree to a foreign force on Yugoslav soil because of history or politics or whatever”; and that “if there had been any sign of compromise,” the officials “probably wouldn’t be on the way to the airport right now.”

But in fact, on March 23, the day Erlanger filed this dispatch, the Serbian leadership reaffirmed its earlier position in a series of parliamentary resolutions.

These rejected the Rambouillet document, mainly because it envisioned the occupation of Kosovo by 28,000 NATO soldiers (who would have the right to move throughout all of Yugoslavia). The resolutions denounced “the demand to deploy NATO troops” and repudiated the notion of deploying “foreign military troops” in Kosovo, which it called an “occupation of Serbia.”

But, in a highly significant move, an accompanying resolution (called a “decision”) was passed, declaring that Serbia was

ready, immediately after the signing of the political settlement about self management [i.e., Kosovo autonomy], negotiated and accepted by the representatives of all the national communities which live in Kosovo and Metohija*, to consider the dimensions and character of the international presence in Kosmet, intended for the implementation of such a settlement.

Although Erlanger’s March 24 dispatch reported that the Serbian parliament met “to reject the idea of allowing foreign troops into Kosovo” and quoted a hawkish Serb parliament member debating the issue, he omitted any mention of the other outcome of that debate: the resolution urging an agreement on an “international presence.”

Curiously, Erlanger inconspicuously slipped a mention of the March 23 resolution into one of the final paragraphs of an April 8 dispatch, describing the parliament’s statement as a call for “United Nations forces.” Erlanger did not respond to an Extra! inquiry on this matter.

The process of historical revision at the Times was completed when, as the war began, reporter Jane Perlez took over day-to-day coverage of the diplomacy, making frequent assertions that Milosevic “has absolutely refusedto entertain an outside force in Kosovo, arguing that the province is sovereign territory of Serbia and Yugoslavia” (4/14/99).


NATO or nothing

Meanwhile, with virtually no notice from the U.S. media, the prospect of a compromise on the international force had been raised at Rambouillet and rejected out of hand by the U.S. Agence France Press and the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported February 20 that an unnamed Contact Group member had outlined a compromise: an international force for Kosovo under the flag of the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), rather than under NATO.

The Serbs signaled that they might accept such a force, but the U.S. ruled it out immediately. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked on CNN (2/21/99): “Does it have to be [a] NATO-led force, or as some have suggested, perhaps a U.N.-led force or an OSCE… force? Does it specifically have to be NATO-run?” She replied: “The United States position is that it has to be a NATO-led force. That is the basis of our participation in it.” (For more details on this subject, see FAIR’s media advisory, “Forgotten Coverage of Rambouillet Negotiations: Was a Peaceful Kosovo Solution Rejected by U.S.?”)

Albright’s position was soon incorporated into the Rambouillet “peace plan,” and presented to the Serbs as an ultimatum. There is evidence that this plan was intentionally crafted to provoke a rejection by the Serbs to create a pretext for NATO’s bombing. A high-level U.S. official reportedly told journalists at Rambouillet (Cato Institute conference, 5/18/99; Nation, 6/14/99): “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.”

Despite this inflexibility, three weeks into the war, Time (4/19/99) looked back nostalgically at the talks in France, lamenting that “the cautious compromise of Rambouillet now seems a naïve pipe dream in a land where compromise has been banished.”

A rare admission of how little separated Yugoslavia’s offer from the United States’ demands was made by Thomas Friedman in his “Foreign Affairs” column in the New York Times (5/11/99)–though he presents it as evidence that only Belgrade should compromise:

If this war can be brought to a diplomatic solution soon, the Serbs, as they rebuild all their broken bridges, roads and factories, may start to ask: Was it worth it? Was it worth setting our country back a generation so that the peacekeepers in Kosovo would wear U.N. blue helmets and not NATO green ones?

It does not seem to occur to Friedman that NATO should be asking itself the same question.

“Diplomatically” demanding surrender

The onset of war sent the diplomatic process back to square one, hardening positions on all sides. Yugoslavia was no longer putting out feelers about an “international presence.” The diplomacy was treading the same ground that had been covered at Rambouillet. But establishment media, having airbrushed out the rapprochement achieved before the war, were compelled to present new developments as “breakthroughs,” though they were often the same agreements reached before March 24.

On May 7, the New York Times‘ lead story was splashed across its front page in a bold, two-column headline: “Russia in Accord on Need for Force to Patrol Kosovo.” The lead sentence: “The West and Russia agreed for the first time today on the need for an international military presence in Kosovo to keep any eventual peace.”

In fact, Russia–which had been acting as an ally of the Serbs and as a mediator between them and NATO–had not changed its position at all. The Russians had signed a statement accepting, as a “general principle,” the deployment of “effective international civil and security presences” in Kosovo–and, as Russian officials made clear, only with the permission of Belgrade. But this had been their position as far back as February (ITAR-TASS, 2/18/99), when they even signaled the prospect of sending Russian soldiers to participate in such a “presence.”

Not only did the history of U.S. diplomatic intransigence disappear from the media’s coverage once the war began, but the concept of diplomacy itself was transformed. The notion that NATO as well as Yugoslavia should be expected to compromise went almost totally unexpressed. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was portrayed as inflexible when its overtures represented anything less than total capitulation.

A routine dispatch in the Washington Post (5/5/99) reported that NATO and Russian “efforts to formulate a diplomatic solution to the conflict picked up pace”; but the article could not report much progress, since “administration officials and [Russian envoy Victor] Chernomyrdin remained at odds over what a settlement should look like and how it should be implemented. Further, there were few signs that Milosevic was significantly closer to accepting NATO demands.”

A casual reader of this passage could be forgiven for feeling confused: It begins by referring to U.S. “efforts to formulate a diplomatic solution,” but “diplomacy” here turns out to mean getting the Russians to obtain from Yugoslavia a full capitulation to NATO’s “demands.”

Likewise, the New York Times (5/3/99) reported: “[NATO] officials said Milosevic’s moves in the last three days”–including “an interview in which he outlined his ideas for a settlement”–“were an effort to show that he can be reasoned with. But so far, the Yugoslav leader has shown no flexibility on NATO’s key demand: an international security force in Kosovo, with NATO at its core.” Again, “diplomacy” means capitulation, and compromise is ruled out.

Although this may be the mainstream media position, it’s not what the American public prefers: A CBS News poll taken May 11 found that respondents agreed by a two-to-one margin that the “United States and NATO should negotiate a compromise with Slobodan Milosevic in order to end the fighting in Yugoslavia.” On most pundit shows, that common sense position would be greeted by howls of derision.

* Serbians often refer to Kosovo as “Kosovo and Metohija,” or “Kosmet” for short.