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The Kosovo mistake

It is difficult to avoid the strong suspicion that U.S. foreign
policy is currently run by amateurs with a short attention span who have
little that even resembles a realistic idea of what they are getting
into in Kosovo or of the possible implications of the kinds of
commitments they are making with relative heedlessness. President
Clinton’s speech after the bombing began a curiously listless
performance for such an important action. Dripping with implications
for the legacy about which he is said to be at least periodically
concerned, it nonetheless lacked the kind of intellectual and political
seriousness the occasion of sending U.S. troops into combat and danger
demands, making it more frightening than laughable (although as an
analysis of the situation and the options it was certainly laughable

One would like to hope that in a democratic polity a commitment of
military power in a country thousands of miles from our shores would
come only after a reasonably prolonged explanation of the need for
action, a decent amount of time for serious, focused discussion of
choices available, in which opponents are treated seriously enough to
have their objections discussed and refuted, and the development of some
semblance of consensus. The Clinton administration’s policy on foreign
adventures, however, seems to be “Bomb Now, Explain Later.”
Serbia is the fourth country he has bombed in the last seven months.

We might have hoped for a sober discussion of the issues at stake in
Kosovo, accompanied by a realistic treatment of some of the objections
raised to a particular course of action followed by a responsible
explanation of why the objections are not valid. Instead, we got a
listless campaign speech preceded by a fourth-grade-level history and
geography lesson simplified much more than most fourth-grade teachers
would have done, but presented in a smarmy and patronizing tone, as if
we are all somewhat dim fourth graders worthy only of contempt from our
teacher, but expected to spew the teacher’s lessons back word-for-word
to the pollsters if we know what’s good for us. Otherwise expect a
knuckle-slap from our wise rulers.

The modern master of the permanent political campaign, on the verge
of sending young Americans to risk death thousands of miles from home (a
risk he at least acknowledged) gave us a prototypical campaign speech
unusually short for a famously voluble politician instead of an analysis
of the stakes and an evaluation of the chances for meeting our hazy
objectives. A few of the statements in it were at least half true, but
the evaluation of Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign
affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute, a few minutes after the
speech ended seems apropos. “My 12-year-old son,” Ted told me, “has a
more sophisticated understanding of recent world history than Bill
Clinton demonstrated. His analysis was an amalgam of mind-numbing
cliches and grotesque over-simplifications.”

Mr. Clinton’s emotion-laden but content-shy talk was notable more for
what was not addressed than for what was mentioned. The fact that this
is the first time NATO has been involved as an institution in what any
traditional understanding of the sometimes-hazy law of nations would
regard as an act of aggression outside of NATO territory was not
mentioned. The fact that the Serbian-Kosovan conflict is a civil war
taking place within the boundaries of a nation-state whose borders and
status are recognized as such by NATO and the United States didn’t make
the cut. The fact that Russia, a country that still has the capacity to
pose a serious threat to real United States interests, was so angry
about the bombing as to sever the tenuous ties it had with NATO and
withdraw from the “partnership for peace” that was supposed to mollify
Russian pride, was not worthy of discussion.

Now it may be that these and other objections to bombing Kosovo are
trivial or at least not serious enough to override the “international
community’s” show of resolve. Perhaps rattling sabers at a tinpot
dictator is so important as to override concerns about tearing up the
reigning myth of nation-states being sovereign (even if unwise or
brutal) within their own borders that has been at the heart of
international relations for over a century. But if so, the objections
had to be mentioned and handled, if only to be dismissed. Simply not to
discuss them, to carry on as if there were only one side to the matter,
is the height of irresponsibility.

But Mr. Clinton didn’t even try to demonstrate that he and his
advisers had grappled seriously with the pros and cons and come to a
reasoned, measured conclusion. He just assumed that a short, mildly
patronizing speech would be enough to demolish any opposition.

Given his experience, of course, perhaps it is not unreasonable for
him to have expected it to be enough. It’s not so much that his talents
as a persuasive communicator are so overwhelming as that the mainstream
media have kindly refrained from parsing his comments as closely as they
deserved during previous embarrassments and scandals. But so far a
little emotion, a little lip-biting, a little show of mock sincerity has
been all he needed to wiggle free of various traps his actions and his
domestic enemies’ efforts have set for him. The Comeback Kid has
prevailed so many times before that success might seem foreordained.

But this isn’t domestic politics. This is life or death in a far-off
land, with American military personnel expected to deal out death to an
enemy that has never attacked us and to avoid their own deaths. Unless
they are to view themselves simply as mercenaries expected to perform
hits at the whim of the capo, they need better reasons than vague
blather about the credibility of NATO as a threat-making institution.

They need to know their country will not ask them to take such risks
unless there are good, solid reasons rooted in a fairly specific concept
of an American (not “the world” or “all decent people”) national
interest, accompanied by a realistic plan to achieve short-term
objectives and well-thought-out backup plans if the first efforts don’t

They didn’t begin to get anything of the sort from Mr. Clinton.