Despite frequent assurances from American officials that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia would be “limited,” it is difficult to see how in any respect the effort has been conceived or executed with a serious view to keeping it “limited.” It is not even clear that Bill Clinton is making any pretence that the war is to be limited. While we are distracted for a time with claims that nothing beyond air war is contemplated, everything actually happening on the ground is pushing us toward a moment of decision to escalate this action. We will choose between sitting by and watching as, according to our government, tens of thousands of people are killed, or sending in ground forces.
Which option do you think our leaders have in mind? It is not difficult to guess, particularly now that we know that it was our president’s decision to ignore the advice he was being given by his own intelligence people that led to this moment of dangerous choice.
So let’s assume that events continue to unfold as appears they are, and NATO deploys several hundred thousand troops on the ground in Europe in a war that goes on for quite a while. Even if we are successful, we will end up with a protectorate in the heart of Europe staffed by U.S. troops. I don’t think we yet realize the implications of this for our whole way of life. Such a development will mean that we are moving away from the republican period into an imperial period of American history.
Taking on such responsibilities will lead to a strengthening of the executive, damage to the underpinnings of our representative government, and an illegitimate empowerment of our national leaders to mobilize the forces of patriotic chauvinism against anyone who disagrees with what they are doing. If you doubt the force of these latter passions, just look at Mr. Milosevic’s popularity ratings since we started our bombing. We should not doubt the usefulness to statists at home of these standard left-wing tactics — to advance their domestic agenda by treating opponents of that agenda as enemies who serve the purposes of those they are fighting in military adventures abroad. President Clinton is manufacturing the precedents and foundations of such a situation right now, and I don’t believe for a moment that its domestic implications are lost on him.
War and the emotions it elicits have a logic of their own. In the course of human affairs, that logic has often gotten beyond the control of the people who have unleashed it. When you let slip the dogs of war, they don’t necessary obey you when you try to call them back. Incidents occur that inflame and escalate the passions on all sides, until finally the emotion itself becomes the reason for prosecuting the war.
Our intervention supposedly is to stop a conflict that has, and has had for centuries, precisely those characteristics. In the Balkans, the history of war itself — the emotions involved and the killings that have occurred, the mass and forced emigrations — have become themselves the cause of the continuing conflict. No people is immune to this process, and we won’t be either if we permit ourselves to become deeply involved in it.
There are some simple truths that we should always remember. War is sometimes a harsh necessity in human affairs. For that reason, we had better study it hard, digesting both its realities once undertaken, and the realities that lead to it. Anyone who deals with government affairs had better not play games with war, but be as deadly serious about it as he can be. For it is deadly serious business. That means going beyond wishful thinking that everyone should get along. Such wishes, however nice, are no substitute for policy. Those who really care about humanity will think very hard about war. They will reflect deeply upon the great respect the statesman must give to war, understanding how dangerous and dreadful it is when necessary.
A soldier learns over time to have a similar respect for his weapon, as something that may save his life, or destroy him if he doesn’t understand, or respect, or use it properly. The statesman must have that same sense of ambiguous respect for war; Bill Clinton doesn’t have this respect, and many of our other policy-makers appear not to have it either. But we shouldn’t draw the sword unless we mean to use it, and use it well. We can never afford to draw it carelessly and stupidly.
We shouldn’t have drawn it this time, because this Administration hadn’t thought through the consequences, and now confronted with them, is clearly not prepared to accept those consequences. But having embarked on this course, and having gotten in over our head, we have two choices: We can follow the reckless advice of Senator Lugar and go for broke. Or we can decide before it goes too far that we won’t extend this ill-conceived military adventure any further. We are still at a point where that wise reconsideration is possible, but we won’t be for long.
This is why it is so important that we let our representatives know that we insist that they be thoughtful and responsible in the days ahead. Trying to restrain the frenzy that Clinton is hoping to whip up over this war is essential to ensure that we think it through clearly and don’t get stampeded into tragic errors. These are matters of life and death. The awful cost of our willingness to tolerate incompetence and misjudgment will be the awesome destruction of human life. We are citizens. And insofar as we can influence these matters, we are morally responsible to do the best job we can to inform ourselves and bring to bear a responsible judgment, so that our representatives hear from us in a way that moves things in the right direction.
The profound implications of the decisions being made right now should be kept in mind by those who are moving to defend the President’s so-called policy. It should be clear to anyone that the situation in the Balkans is extremely complex. Reducing it to an emotional morality play of a mini-Hitler against the world is a grave disservice. The unreasoned support of Senator Lugar and other Republicans for this simplistic account will contribute to the willingness of Clinton and others to commit us further to a policy that has incalculably serious consequences.
It is true that we must have a component in our foreign policy that aims at building and promoting respect for human rights. We cannot just sit on our hands while human life and human dignity are being destroyed around the world. We must do our best to effectively improve those situations.
But this objective must be pursued with the greatest care, and with the greatest amount of forethought we can muster. Otherwise we risk re-introducing into the world elements that can be severely dangerous to any hopes for real peace. If we are seeking a world in which pretexts for aggression are largely contained, then we must aim at a world in which we do not allow one country’s assertions of human rights abuses to become justification for aggression against another, unless abuses are on such a scale that the assessment is inescapably of crimes against humanity itself.
What NATO today says about Yugoslavia, and what Muslim states might say tomorrow about Israel, or what others might say about strife within the Sudan or Sri Lanka, are not things we can control. Peoples and governments are going to express opinions, often contradictory, about the actions of these governments. If we give these governments permission to back their opinions with military force, then those regions of historical dispute will suffer the predations of any adversary or faction with military might. We will, in fact, have returned the international arena to the principle of “might makes right” precisely because of an incompetent pursuit of the right.
Because of this, a certain degree of formalism in our international affairs is important. We must protect the precedent that borders will not be violated or aggression committed simply because the power exists to do so. Overwhelming reason must be offered if these forms are to be violated — and NATO has not offered such reason, at least not according to a safe standard of what the threshold ought to be for justifying military aggression.
Real crimes and real horrors have been committed in Yugoslavia. But this statement could be made about both sides in this conflict, and about the violence that has characterized the region as a whole. Further, the situation fits the classic definition of a civil war. In this it is unlike previous conflicts in the region, when the various sides were being used as chess pieces by larger powers to play out their rivalry and even to create strife that might be to their advantage. Until NATO took the extremely ill-advised step of bombing Yugoslavia, we were dealing with the challenge of containing the effects of a true civil conflict so those effects wouldn’t jostle neighboring regions. But the conflict did not make it necessary that those effects would magnify into a genuine, region-wide conflict.
Now, of course, as a result of the NATO bombing, the cascade has begun. The flood of refugees is introducing destabilizing influences into neighboring countries. The war itself is producing new grievances between the combatants — such as the question of the treatment of the three American prisoners. I believe that the situation is now likely to escalate into a region-wide conflict.
We are talking, now, about war in Europe. How many of us thought we would be thinking about that any time soon? With the Cold War over, we have been tempted to think that foreign policy would reduce to the management of our international economic pursuits. Instead, we are faced with war in Europe and the possible mobilization of Russian military power.
Our political leaders are assuming, apparently, that this will remain just be a conflict between NATO and Yugoslavia, and that no other elements will involve themselves. But that assumes that all the variables, including the political situation in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, stay the same. This seems a very unwise assumption to me. They had better be right. Because if they are wrong, then we are backing into the very situation that for several decades we worked so hard to avoid by following policies both firm and tempered.
Our leaders are basing their assumption entirely on the notion that the Russians are weak and dependent on our money, and that, despite some bluster to save face, nothing serious will come of it. They believe the Russians are in no position actually to respond. I think that the Yeltsin government is, in fact, in that position. But I wonder why our leaders assume that the Yeltsin government can’t simply be overthrown in a wave of Russian pride and resentment once it is stirred up enough by our pummeling of one of Russia’s traditional “little brothers” in Yugoslavia. Napoleon learned, to his grief, that such old Russian patriotism is something to be reckoned with, once it starts to move.
In order to survive the years since the Second World War, we have had to maintain a delicate balance between toughness on the one hand, and awareness, on the other hand, of the enormous stakes involved every time we draw the sword. The current Clinton policy is a combination of recklessness and incompetence that is the most dangerous combination imaginable. If its incoherent underlying assumptions do lead to major miscalculation, it could tumble us into World War III.
Our current leaders are deluding themselves with the thought that those risks are no longer there, that we no longer live in a world where a nuclear exchange with the Russian bear could be right around the corner. But those arsenals are still there. And even if in a shambles, Russian military might is sufficient to require a whole lot of war before we would be able to put it down.
We have allowed the end of the Cold War to make us reckless. And this is exactly the kind of danger one would have expected from those like Bill Clinton who have been under the idiotic delusion that the end of the Cold War meant that we no longer had to worry about military threats. Isn’t it interesting that the very people who, several years ago, were talking about how to spend the “defense dividend” are now mobilizing our military power for a war in Europe that has the most awful implications?
One of the dangers of war is indeed that it develops its own emotional logic. The reactions that people have to the things that happen in war — such as large-scale killing — become themselves the reasons for waging war. This logic is one of the reasons that wars are so terrible and are so difficult to end. When we seek to end a conflagration that has been burning for a long time, fueled by that very runaway logic of war, we had best take special care not to become prey to it ourselves.
But the Clinton Administration now is clearly trying to whip up an emotional frenzy so that the move to ground troops will be accepted. I believe that they do plan to put in ground troops, and that Bill Clinton is lying about that. Meanwhile, the propaganda media is being maneuvered in the hope of generating passions that will support what the Administration has probably viewed all along to be the inevitable use of ground forces. Bill Clinton is a wonderful front man for this policy, because he will lie with no shame at all about this as about everything.
The inadequacies of Bill Clinton, of course, contribute to the danger of the moment. The high duties of the commander in chief don’t fit well with the low character of the man we have put in that office. He may soon be leading us through a major confrontation with the Russians, among other enormous challenges. These are his duty because of the office he so ignobly holds. These challenges will occur in the immediate wake of months and months in which we were told that the only thing that mattered was that Bill Clinton was doing such a “great job” in his role at home. We should have been focusing on the implications of Bill Clinton’s oath-breaking, lack of integrity, and disrespect for the Constitution, within the context of his role. We didn’t pay attention to those questions at the time, and now we are going to pay the price.
A perverse poetic justice is unfolding. We have permitted the moral balkanization of America at the hands of Bill Clinton and his friends, and now we are finding ourselves drawn into the strange project of trying to Americanize the Balkans by force. In a moral sense, Clintonism balkanizes America, depriving us of our common foundation of moral truth, principle and judgment, and turning us into squabbling, competing groups. And now, using military force, the Clintonites are attempting the equally irrational task of homogenizing a factionalized Europe.
We all need to be praying hard that these leaders, including those in Russia, will have the wisdom to resist being carried away by the terrible logic that could be unleashed by these events. I am praying every morning and every night that God will somehow, in His wisdom, keep us from this brink. Because men are playing with things that are much larger than they are, and they are doing so with a degree of recklessness that it puts the whole world in great danger.