THE WISDOM FUND: News & Views
Release Date: April 27, 1999
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Bill Clinton's War

The Progressive Comment, 1999 The Progressive Inc.

THE GREAT HISTORIAN Gabriel Kolko, in his book Century of War, writes: "War, in essence, has always been an adventure intrinsically beset with surprises and false expectations, its total outcome unpredictable to all those who have engaged in it."

Bill Clinton is finding this out the hard way. His ill-conceived decision to prod NATO into bombing Yugoslavia in March has wreaked havoc. The hundreds of thousands of refugees, the civilians killed by NATO bombs, the U.S. soldiers captured, the solidification of domestic support for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the dangerous chill in U.S.-Russian relations--all these have come to pass since Clinton made his fateful decision.

Granted, the decision was not an easy one. Milosevic is a brutal leader. His troops in Bosnia committed acts of genocide, and, as he has demonstrated since the bombing, his ferocity in Kosovo knows few bounds. The international community must find a way to prevent or resolve human rights crises like this one. The Rwandan example, where more than 500,000 people died in a matter of weeks in 1994, demonstrates the need for some kind of action.

But launching a NATO air war against Milosevic was the triumph of threat over thought. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had blustered so much about bombing that when Milosevic refused to budge, she and the United States and NATO were left with the option of losing face or carrying out the threat--even though the consequences of carrying out that threat had not yet been calculated.

That was just one in a series of blunders and blusters that led to this fiasco. First, at the Dayton Accords in 1995, the United States kept Kosovo off the table and whisked the problem under the rug. But the problem did not go away.

After the settlement, NATO troops should have arrested the butchers of Bosnia, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, and tried them for crimes against humanity. They've been under indictment by the world court at the Hague, but for years have been living in Bosnia, which is under the protection of NATO troops. What signal did this send to Milosevic or other thugs under his command?

For almost ten years, Kosovo had one of the most active nonviolent resistance movements since Gandhi's time. But the United States and NATO did not do enough to support this effort. Only when some Kosovars took up arms did Washington pay serious attention. Albright could barely exert influence over the Kosovo Liberation Army, and she used every bit of leverage to get the KLA to sign the agreement at Rambouillet. She did so not to assure a peace agreement (Milosevic was already on record rejecting Rambouillet), but to justify war. She needed the KLA's signature as the start-your-engines sign for NATO bombers. Within days, NATO ordered its unarmed observers to leave Kosovo. And as soon as they left, the Serbs marched in.

It would have been far better, instead, to have flooded Kosovo with international peacekeepers--from the United Nations, from countries like India, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland, which had no stake in the battle--to buy time and act as a buffer between Milosevic's forces and the Kosovars. It may even have been better to let Russian troops join in the peacekeeping; that way Milosevic would have had to overrun his friends to get to the Kosovars, and the international community would have united against him.

But instead of trying a myriad of peaceful options, Clinton, Albright, and NATO reached for the old, unreliable one: Send in the bombers. They didn't bother themselves with international law. They flouted it. International law clearly states that one country can attack another one only when it is itself under attack, about to be attacked, or when the U.N. Security Council grants permission. Belgrade was not attacking the United States or any of the NATO countries involved in the bombings. And the United States intentionally avoided the Security Council because Russia and China were likely to veto any military action.

Nor, for that matter, was the bombing in accordance with U.S. law: Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the sole power to declare war, and there was no formal declaration of war in this case. Congress shirked its responsibilities by approving a measure that fell short of a war declaration but supported the President's decision to send in the bombers.

And liberals vanished. Only four Democrats in all of Congress bothered to protest. In the House, there was only one, Barbara Lee of California (see Ruth Conniff's profile on page 10). In the Senate, just three: Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

BILL CLINTON'S JUSTIFICATIONS for the bombing were filled with distortions and omissions. In his March 24 speech to the nation on the subject, he said that World War I started in the Balkans, which is true, but it became a global war only after the biggest powers foolishly entered it. Somehow, he neglected to mention that fine point.

Clinton talked about the "moral imperative" the United States has to prevent gross human rights abuses. He neglected to mention that current U.S. allies are carrying out some of those same abuses. Turkey, a leading recipient of U.S. aid and a NATO member, has been waging a war against the Kurds over the last fifteen years. That war has cost 35,000 lives and left three million as refugees. Clinton said Serbia won't let the Kosovars "speak their language, run their schools, shape their daily lives." Neither will Turkey allow the Kurds such freedoms.

So why isn't NATO bombing Ankara?

Clinton didn't mention that the leading recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America, Colombia, has been waging a brutal civil war against leftwing guerrillas there. The Colombian army and its affiliated paramilitary squads have killed thousands of peasants, unionists, politicians, and human rights activists.

So why isn't Washington bombing Bogota?

Clinton also said that the conflict in Kosovo was "important to America's national interests." But that is hardly the case. The most vital national security interest the United States has is to stay on friendly terms with Russia. Moscow has 7,000 nuclear warheads that can hit the United States. Belgrade has none. But U.S. policy in the Clinton Administration has consistently offended Russia, first with the expansion of NATO, then with the decision to fund Star Wars, and now with the bombing of Yugoslavia. As a result, the Russians are unlikely to sign Start II, which would have cut their nuclear arsenal in half. They are backing off negotiations to "de-alert" nuclear weapons. And now they are sending warships to the Mediterranean.

This NATO war is another boost for the nationalists in Russia, where all the ingredients of a revanchist regime are in place: a lost empire, a ruined economy, a humiliated leadership. Clinton's chief accomplishment in office may turn out to be that he laid the groundwork for a new Cold War.

THE BOMBING was intended to justify the continued existence of NATO. More than seven years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union (NATO's ostensible reason for being), Clinton and his European allies--along with Boeing and Lockheed--are trying to improvise an afterlife. Milosevic came in handy. Twice in Clinton's speech to the nation, he brought up the alliance. "Our mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose," he said. Failing to act, he added, "would discredit NATO, the cornerstone on which our security has rested for fifty years now."

This is what historian Kolko calls a "credibility fixation." Because Clinton and Albright threatened NATO attacks and Milosevic did not back down, they felt they had to go to war, no matter the costs. "Perhaps the single most recurrent justification that leaders of major powers have evoked for risking wars evolved from their belief that their credibility, which allegedly created fear among potential enemies and thereby constrained their actions, depended on their readiness to use force even when the short-term rationality for violence was very much in doubt," Kolko writes.

The short-term rationality was dubious from the outset. Bombing has almost never brought a foe to his knees. Hitler tried to bring the British down with a blitz and failed. The allies firebombed Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo without achieving their ends. The United States repeatedly bombed Hanoi during the Vietnam War and managed only to kill a lot of innocent people. And Clinton's bombing of Baghdad has not made Saddam Hussein capitulate. Only the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened a surrender. Surely, that's not a route worth traveling again. Washington and NATO should have anticipated that the bombing would serve not to dislodge Milosevic but to strengthen his base of support. Even former opponents of Milosevic were won over to his side once the bombs began to fall.

Faced with hundreds of thousands of refugees, an entrenched Milosevic, and Serbian troops on the rampage, U.S. generals quickly began a two-step, denying that the NATO offensive was ever designed to prevent the Serbs from engaging in "ethnic cleansing."

"Bombing cannot stop the killing of civilians," General Wesley Clark, Supreme NATO Commander, said on Good Morning America. "It was never the mission, never the expectation that action from the air alone can halt ethnic cleansing. It cannot be done." This is a bait-and-switch. A week earlier, Clinton had told the nation: "Right now our firmness is the only hope the people of Kosovo have to be able to live in their own country without having to fear for their own lives."

WAR HAS A DYNAMIC of its own. A few miscalculations here and there, and a little war can easily become a big one, with casualties mounting higher than ever anticipated. That is why it is crucial to do everything to prevent wars from starting--and to stamp them out once they start.

The United States and NATO dismissed out of hand Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's first diplomatic initiative. This was unwise. The allies could have used it as an opening for negotiations before spilling more blood. Instead, NATO, under heavy pressure from Washington, decided to up the ante and start bombing Belgrade. The logic of this was astounding: Bombing isn't working, so we're going to bomb even more.

Bombing is not the answer. And ground troops are not the answer. The answer is to stop the war, negotiate a settlement, and dedicate our energy and our Pentagon treasury to finding peaceful ways to settle conflicts instead of resorting to war.

But, at some point, a brutal leader may not stop at the peace signs. What then?

We believe there are times when humanitarian military interventions are justified. But they must be used only as a last resort, after every effort at peacemaking has been exhausted. That did not happen here.

And they must be carried out in accordance with international law. That did not happen here.

And they must be applied in some consistent manner around the globe. That did not happen here.

The United Nations is the only proper forum for addressing and resolving the difficult issue of humanitarian interventions. These are global problems; they are not the province of the lone superpower or of the alliance it dominates.

Only when the United Nations exercises its responsibility and expands its power will it be able to intervene with enough force to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. But to endow it with that power, the United States must recognize its own limitations. It needs to shed its delusions about being a global cop, clean up its own act, and work seriously with the rest of the world for peace.

Copyright 1999 by The Progressive, Madison, WI - All Rights Reserved
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