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Slouching Toward Armageddon 

An argument for ending the war now

Wednesday, Jun 2 1999
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Photo: AP/Wide World

The Clinton administration bombers and their apologists must not be allowed to represent the rest of us. They have imposed a moral barricade on the soul of America, and to that barricade Americans must go in moral opposition.

—Historian Stephen F. Cohen,

The Nation, May 24, 1999

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After nine weeks and more than 6,000 bombing sorties, the moral stench from Bill Clinton’s bloody Balkans war has become unbearable. It’s horrible to watch as yet another American administration blindly lurches deeper into a murderous morass — this time not only without an exit strategy, but arguably bereft even of an entrance strategy. Take your choice of adjectives: feckless, incompetent, arrogant — they all apply to the Clinton foreign-policy team. Especially arrogant. Clinton hasn’t seen fit to so much as acknowledge a note of critical inquiry sent to him three weeks ago by one of only four living ex–U.S. presidents: Jimmy Carter.

For two months I have listened politely to those of my friends on the Left who have argued in favor of the NATO intervention, and, while disagreeing with them, I have thought their contributions crucial to what little debate there is over this war. We all agree that defense of the ethnic Albanians is a worthy goal.

But this war is no longer defensible on any grounds. By every measure it is a human and political catastrophe that grotesquely defeats all of its stated goals. Since the onset of the bombing, more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians have been pushed out of Kosovo by Serbian military forces. The more we pound Slobodan Milosevic, the greater the pressure he applies on the Kosovars. And as more bombs drop, the Serbian population rallies tighter around the Milosevic regime, thereby suffocating whatever remains of a democratic opposition. Meanwhile we undermine rather than strengthen political stability in Southern Europe.

And with every new bombing run, with every flesh-ripping explosion of a cluster bomb, the much vaunted American and NATO credibility — at least their moral credibility — is further flayed and shredded. Before the air war began, 57 percent of Russians expressed favorable opinions of the United States while 28 percent were negative. Today the favorable views have plummeted to 14 percent while 72 percent of Russians feel hostile to the U.S.

Yet still we continue to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Yugoslavia: its electrical grid, water supplies, phone and computer lines. Back to what sort of moonscape are American troops planning to "escort" displaced Albanians at the end of this conflict?

We have now reached an ominous and foreboding juncture in this war. When Milosevic was flown to Dayton four years ago to sign the Bosnian peace accords, American officials were all too eager to pump Slobo’s hand without asking him to first rinse off the blood of countless Croats and Muslims. No FBI agents were lurking behind the doors ready to cuff and bag him. And so, how downright fortuitous the timing of Milosevic’s indictment as a war criminal was last week — just as the air war had demonstrably failed. Just as public opinion was starting to significantly falter. It wasn’t Milosevic who was arrested but rather the already hampered maneuvers toward any sort of diplomatic settlement. True, there has never been any guarantee that Milosevic would compromise. But as Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, told me this week, "For God’s sake, massive bombing has never produced political results."

The indictment of Milosevic, paired with NATO’s decision to immediately mobilize at least 50,000 troops on the borders of Kosovo, seems only to confirm a recent report in the London Times that Clinton has "changed his mind" and now favors an all-out ground war — 90,000 American troops of a total 150,000-man force.

With this tilt toward invasion, time is running out for the pro-interventionist Left — the laptop bombardiers and the café-based Wing Commanders. Until now they have had the dubious luxury of engaging in a series of "if only" fantasies. You’ve heard this line of reasoning. Something like: "I support this war, but I’d feel better about it if only . . ." Fill in the blank. If only it were the Europeans, or the U.N., leading the charge. If only the U.S. were more consistent in human-rights policy. If only . . .

But as NATO moves toward full-scale war, that luxury is no longer affordable. You must either support the existing war as implemented by Bill Clinton and NATO — or oppose it. And if you do support it, then you must be ready to freely volunteer yourself and your children, not only to kill but also to die for Kosovo. Any "third" position is a moral dodge.

Time is short for those of us who want to stop this war. With a White House team that doesn’t so much as fart without some pre-polling, whether or not to proceed to a ground war will depend less on the military conditions in Yugoslavia than on just how "permissive" the political terrain here at home seems. Fortunately, as Democratic adviser William Bradley points out in his New West Notes newsletter, a staggering 82 percent of Americans "favor the position of the German Green Party": They want a bombing pause followed by a negotiated settlement.

You’d never know this, of course, from the official debate. Liberal Democrats who took a moral dive for President Clinton during most of last year have once again gone in the tank for him. They seem incapable of holding two thoughts in their heads at once: 1) that the Kosovar Albanians are being persecuted by Slobodan Milosevic and 2) that NATO’s war is only inflicting more suffering on all.

Given the demonstrated cowardice of what survives of American liberalism, I doubt we are going to see much if any outrage coming from elected Democrats as the war escalates. So far, barely a tenth of the Democratic congressional delegation has found the courage to even whisper against the war. The rest have sat silently by as this Democratic administration pisses on what is arguably one of the most important gains of the post-Vietnam era — constitutional restrictions on a president’s ability to unilaterally make war. On Tuesday, May 25, when, after 60 days of military engagement, he refused to seek congressional authorization, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to blatantly and flatly violate the 1973 War Powers Act. Roll over, Richard Nixon!

The abdication of Democratic liberals has placed an enormous weight of responsibility on the shoulders of a still-incipient peace movement. Against charges that such a movement was marginal and relegated to the fringe, we saw more than 1,000 Angelenos flock to the anti-war teach-in at Leo Baeck Temple two Sundays ago. But this peace movement, to be effective, must also be clear-headed: It must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time; it must full-throatedly articulate that the U.S./NATO war is wrong and that Slobodan Milosevic is a murderous fascist.

Those who deny that the Kosovar Albanians have any less right to self-determination than, say, South African blacks, and especially those political knuckleheads who argue that Serbia is under attack by the U.S. because it is an obstinate "socialist" island in a global capitalist ocean, please . . . please do us all a favor and find some other movement to be a part of.

The rest of us have much work to accomplish in a very short window. We must mount that moral barricade suggested by Stephen Cohen and bring to bear our effective and principled opposition to more bombing and more war. With a poll-driven administration in power, we must spread our opposition into the halls of Congress, into the core Democratic constituencies, and ultimately into the streets. Join the demonstrations every Saturday at the Westwood Federal Building, take family and friends to the twin June 5 marches in Washington and San Francisco, organize in your school and neighborhood. We invite those of you who initially supported the intervention out of your compassion and concern for the Albanians to now join us in confronting a policy that produces only more suffering and death.

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