As I write, American planes and cruise missiles acting in concert with America’s NATO allies are pounding Serbia from the air. Simultaneously, the Clinton Administration, after first rejecting China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), is calling for the resumption of negotiations to lead up to such admission.
It is a peculiar juxtaposition and one that points to, among much else, the complexity of policy decisions in a world in which options have multiplied so greatly.
Why is the United States in Serbia? What national interest is at stake that leads to battle? These are questions Americans themselves are asking. That they feel the need to ask such questions is itself testimony to the weakness of leadership exhibited by President Clinton. For surely, in a democratic society, wise leaders take the trouble to build a constituency for needed action.
In part, President Clinton didn’t do this because, as is typical of liberals, he didn’t think it was necessary. For much of the last half-century, the left has turned to judges to alter society by fiat – thus short-circuiting the normally tedious and difficult course of building coalitions and constituencies in state legislatures, in Congress, and in society at large.
In choosing not to seek Congressional approval for his actions and even in choosing to not spend the time to build up a public understanding of the issues, President Clinton may have made a grave mistake.
Indeed, by all accounts, the best single explanation of how the United States wound up in a massive military campaign is that it was all a mistake. President Clinton thought that the threat of air strikes would be sufficient to frighten Milosevic into agreeing to a diplomatic solution that included protections for the autonomy of Kosovo. Once the threat was made, things developed a kind of momentum.
When the threat didn’t work, the U.S. had to make good on its threat lest other tyrants deem U.S. threats to be idle. So, the bombs fell. Once engaged, of course, those same tyrants would not take the U.S. seriously if they felt when bombed that they could just hunker down and wait things out.
So, inexorably, the U.S. will wind up getting in deeper and deeper as evidenced by the shipment of Apache class helicopters to the battle region. These helicopters are airpower only technically, and, in fact, are clear evidence that the air war isn’t working and a new strategy must be designed.
Shockingly enough, the accidental, indeed stumbling way the U.S. found its way into war has led to a situation in which, literally, there is no “Plan B,” no strategy as to what to do if bombing doesn’t work.
The whole situation reminds many Americans of Vietnam. Once again, we have a war in which political leaders restrict the general’s freedom of action. Once again there is an awful kind of incrementalism, ratcheting up the war each step, but never appearing with overwhelming force. Even the notion of bombing as literature – sending the enemy a message – seems in high gear: witness the decision to strike the building in Belgrade from which much of the “ethnic cleansing” was being coordinated – but to strike it at night when it would be empty. Conveniently, the inflamed building would look brilliant on evening television.
Of course, the fact that the war was clearly a miscalculation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have fought it. It is undeniably true that no great national interest, as conventionally understood, was at stake in Serbia.
It is also true that the comparisons to Hitler are overblown, and despite his evil nature and the racist policies toward the Muslim population in Kosovo, there was no real danger of Milosevic conquering Europe or spreading his policies of venom and hate.
So, stumbling backward, the United States tripped into a war fought for a noble cause. The comparison is as if pre-World War II Germany, though not a threat to any neighbor, announced that all German Jews were being expelled or they would be killed. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that any country would have lifted a finger against Germany as long as it confined its actions to Jews within Germany.
So this war is a way of saying “No, we won’t stand by and let you do this.” It is a way of saying that people learned something from the Holocaust. That “never again” is more than a slogan for fundraising.
Of course, the lesson is an imperfect one. Which is why the juxtaposition with the Chinese negotiations is so problematic. By all accounts, the Chinese policies in Tibet have been every bit as reprehensible as the Serbian policies in Kosovo. Yet, nobody is off to invade Lhasa.
Why? Well, simple really. China is a powerful country, a nuclear power, and Serbia is weak. Tibet is located far from any ocean, whereas Yugoslavia is on the sea. The western allies have no bases near Tibet; they have many near Serbia. The inconsistency is clear on an ethical basis; the situations are distinct on a prudential basis.
Which means only that nations, like people, can only do what they can. So, one helps those one can help without fear of hypocrisy for not helping everyone.
There is something somehow inglorious about this banner. But it is the one we wind up marching under. We did what we could. Perhaps future generations will see the nobility in such a modest claim.